Wednesday, October 19, 2016

HOLIDAY INN: Only Corbin Bleu Stands Out in Otherwise Bland Celebration of Irving Berlin

Holiday Inn, the “new Irving Berlin musical” now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, is not exactly new. How could it be, when its composer died in 1989 and not a single song in the show was culled from previously unpublished works? Instead, it is a rewrite of the 1942 movie musical of the same name, following the same general plot line with some tinkering by Gordon Greenberg (who also directs) and Chad Hodge, along with additional Berlin tunes that originated elsewhere.  

To be clear, I have no problem with shows that are built around compilations of pre-existing, even familiar songs.  However, I do expect a certain degree of imaginative directing, snazzy orchestrations, stellar performances, or, really, anything to lift it above the pleasant but bland evening that is being offered here in a production better suited to community theater than to Broadway. 

Bryce Pinkham (deservedly a Tony nominee for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) plays Jim Hardy, a man who has traded in a career as a nightclub performer for what he supposes will be a bucolic life on a farm he has purchased in Connecticut. 

Jim comes off as a stick-in-the-mud dreamer, ready to give up and give in at every turn. A fatalist, he basically shrugs it off when his fiancĂ©e and showbiz partner Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) decides she’s not ready to retire after all and elects to remain in the business with Jim’s more ambitious buddy Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu). 

So it’s off to the farm for Jim, who mopes around, overwhelmed by a place in sore need of refurbishing and drowning in a pile of overdue bills and the threat of foreclosure.  

Sigh.  What’s a fellow to do?

Lucky for Jim, he has a barn filled with theater props, a knack for writing Irving Berlin-type songs, and friends back in New York who would be delighted to pop up to Connecticut on occasion to put on a show – say, during various holidays throughout the year. They can sell tickets, and even fill up the farmhouse’s 15 bedrooms with paying guests.  Yay! 

That’s essentially the story of Holiday Inn. The songs, some two dozen of them, are performed by a talented cast, who are unfortunately constrained by listless orchestrations and vocal arrangements of some of Berlin’s gems (among them Blue Skies, Heat Wave, Shaking the Blues Away, Easter Parade, White Christmas) as well as others that fall into the lower-tier category.  Again, it’s as if everything were planned for easy transfer to smaller local productions around the country, with many of the numbers staged and performed as the might appear on an old television variety show. (Lawrence Welk came to mind while watching a sweetly-rendered version of Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.) 

Jim does not remain unattached for long. His new love interest is Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), the former owner of the property, a local school teacher, and – quelle surprise – a singer!  He is also aided and abetted by his jill-of-all-trades and everybody’s pal, cheerleader, and matchmaker Louise (Megan Lawrence, though played by understudy Jennifer Foote at the performance I attended.) Louise brings Linda and Jim together, although, to provide a teensy amount of suspense, Ted Hanover shows up, having been dumped by Lila for a Texas millionaire. Guess who’s looking for a new dance partner, and guess who he has his eye on!!!

Of the lead performers, only Corbin Bleu, a talented dancer, manages to make something of his role. He is featured in two of the stronger numbers of the evening, You’re Easy to Dance With, performed with a string of women as he searches for the perfect replacement partner, and Let’s Say It With Firecrackers, more-or-less a re-creation of one of the movie’s better-known numbers danced by Fred Astaire. Mr. Bleu, of High School Musical fame, has a certain impish charm that suits him well, and he has his own surety of dance style that lets him pull off the Astaire role without worrying about the master’s shadow. 

The rest are fine, but not necessarily right for their roles. Bryce Pinkham has a lovely tenor, but, really, can a tenor pull off White Christmas without being crushed by the memory of Bing Crosby’s iconic baritone?  Megan Sikora does the ditzy blonde thing quite well, but she is given precious little to do that would allow her to take that kind of performance to the rafters where it belongs. Likewise, Lora Lee Gayer’s operatic soprano is not suited to the role of the girl-next-door she is playing.  

In smaller parts, Lee Wilkof does nicely as an agent striving to get Ted a Hollywood contract, and young Morgan Gao gives a gutsy performance in an outlandish role as a kid who represents the bank every time foreclosure is mentioned. The role of Louise is at least fun, and certainly Ms. Foote, the understudy, carried it off well.  

What you have in the end is the Irving Berlin songs. The problem is, only a couple of them are staged with any panache.  If you’re out to highlight these well-worn standards, then do it up big. Clever. With original staging and exciting choreography. But generally, none of these elements is part of this production. The biggest number comes near the end of a tedious Act I, an exuberant version of Shaking the Blues Away that finally wakes things up. Act II is decidedly better than Act I, but, other than Mr. Bleu’s two numbers, it rarely rises above the banal.  

One thing I did like is the clear effort to put together a diverse company, with a racially and ethnically mixed ensemble and varied body types (tall, short, curvy, thin, short-legged, long-bodied, etc.), so the cast as a whole looked like a gathering of real people and not like a collection of interchangeable magazine covers. I was also curious what they would do (or not do) with a number from the movie that attempted to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and his role in the fight to end slavery, but which unfortunately (in a plot twist) put white performers in black face. Here, a few bars of the song were interpolated into the score as a nod to Berlin, and then disappeared. 

Nice touch, that. But the show as a whole is lacking in so many of its elements that it fails to satisfy, even on the light-and-fluffy entertainment scale. 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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