By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
Most movie musicals are adaptations of shows originating on the stage. Not so with Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Written for the silver screen in 1942, the Holiday Inn that Musical Theatre West is staging right now didn’t exist until debuting on Broadway in 2017.
Having never seen the film, I can’t offer comparisons. What I can say is that this Holiday Inn is stylistically typical of World War II-era musicals, a simple story with big numbers and a breezy plot that walks the main characters through high jinx on the way to their happy ending. If you like this kind of thing, I can’t imagine there is any possible way you’ll come away from this show disappointed.
Jim (Cameron Bond), Ted (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), and Lila (Jennifer Knox) are a song-and-dance team, but sweethearts Jim and Lila are breaking up the band based on a promise to each other that they’d quit showbiz when the gigs dried up. Jim just bought Mason Farm in Connecticut, where they’re going to settle down; but when they get an offer for one more six-week tour, Lila and Ted take it while Jim goes to New England to set up house. While waiting for Lila to join him, where he meets Linda Mason (Natalie Storrs), who recently moved out after the bank foreclosed. She too once had stars in her eyes, but she let her dreams go to come back home and care for her father during his final years and now lives a quiet, somewhat lonely life in a tiny apartment. Meanwhile, Ted and Lila are a hit on the road, and Lila returns only to tell Jim that farmlife was his dream, not hers.
As expected, romance ensues between Jim and Linda. And since both still have a yen to perform, what could be more natural than turning Mason Farm into a performance venue? That’s the Holiday Inn, which puts on shows only for Easter, Christmas, Fourth of July, etc. The shows are a hit, and Linda’s so good that Ted is sure together they can make it in Hollywood.
The plot of Holiday Inn is more than serviceable enough to string together the musical numbers, which themselves are quite good. Without being behind the scenes it’s hard to know exactly how to dole out credit, but there’s no doubt that Danny Pelzig’s direction and Christine Negherbon’s choreography are first-rate. Every scene is well-blocked, and every dance number, big or small, makes all the right moves. That’s easiest to see with the show-stoppers, particularly “Shaking the Blues Away”, which is nonstop action at all levels of the stage and features not only elaborate tap-dancing but a whole jump-roping sequence, which should be stupid but somehow works wonderfully.
More than any show I’ve seen, Holiday Inn is a bonanza for the ensemble roles, and all 16 of these performers do complete justice to the bounty they receive, in some ways even more responsible for the overall success of certain numbers than the leads. They are aided in the endeavor by the multitude of sumptuous costumes they don. I’m told these are basically the same as were worn on Broadway, and they look it.
With an ensemble doing so much so well, there’s the potential for the leads to be upstaged. Thankfully, the cast is just as good at the top of the bill. Cameron Bond and Jeffrey Scott Parsons are flawless, and Liz Eldridge (as Louise, lifelong friend to Linda and a “handyman” who sort of comes with Mason Farm) brings to mind Rosie O’Donnell in all the best ways.
Although you can’t really pick a standout in a cast where everyone is perfect, there’s no way not to mention Natalie Storrs, whose seemingly effortless command of every note and gesture — often in combinations that simply can’t be as easy to pull off as she makes it seem — is stunning.
The music is…well, it’s Irving Berlin. You know plenty of his songs even if you don’t know you know — I recognized five in this show alone — but if they’re not your bag (to me, he’s no Cole Porter (who to me is no Pink Floyd, if you get my drift)), it doesn’t matter how good he is at doing his Tin Pan Alley thing. In any case, there isn’t a clunker in this batch and one undeniable classic: “White Christmas”. You’ve heard it a billion times, yet every now and then it still makes you say: Awwww.
In terms of mise en scène (I really love that term), this is may be the most impressive theatre craft I’ve seen from Musical Theatre West — and that’s saying something. Major chunks of set roll on and off from the wings, flats are constantly dropping from the flyspace at multiple depths, props appear and disappear before you know what’s happening. Paul Black’s lighting design employs such a variety of base colors that his work alone goes a long way toward establishing the numerous physical locations that flow from one to another. All of these elements simultaneously come together masterfully in several numbers, including “Heat Wave”, where we go on the road with Ted and Lila as they move from club to club and city to city, their success growing and growing until its fit to burst.
Now we come to the dreaded paragraph where I report on the bad. Twice during the performance I attended a curtain got snagged on a piece of scenery for a few seconds before it was unsnagged. ***END REPORT***
If you think there’s so little negative here because I’m one of those critics who likes all things theatre and can’t bear to criticize the efforts of our brave thespians, then clearly you’ve not read many of my reviews. And let’s be frank: Chicago or Sweeney Todd this ain’t. But Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn is well-crafted lite fare served up perfectly by Musical Theatre West. So if you dig “Golden Age” musicals, give yourself an early Christmas present, because this is how they should be done.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Musical Theatre West
Times: Thursday thru Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 6 p.m. + Sat.–Sun. 1 p.m.
The show runs through Dec.15
Details: (562) 856-1999 ext. 4, musical.org
Venue: Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach