There’s a moment deep in the first act of Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical where a scene of flying tap shoes reveals the glowing, rapturous possibilities of this production—blending all manner of twee, kitsch, romance and glee.
It’s Christmas Eve 1946, and a troupe of dancers and singers have descended upon a Connecticut farmhouse to help out their dancing colleague put on a show to save the farm. They begin to unpack boxes including some clearly labeled “tap shoes” by throwing them to one another, like juggling balls. The sixteen-member dancing ensemble trims the tree, plays jump rope with tinsel garlands, and taps in formation with wild abandon and bursting energy.
This sequence captures precise choreography and unapologetic playfulness at a perfect pitch. Sadly that cannot be said for every moment of this movie script-cum-stage musical. When it works (and the shoes sequence delivers like gangbusters) this musical brings down the house. When it doesn’t, the seams show in the storytelling and it is let down by some uneven performances (in particular Corbin Bleu’s spectacular spin as a dancer who unfortunately lacks lothario heat).
This country mouse-city mouse/career-versus-personal happiness story is inspired by the classic 1942 movie of the same name. Two erstwhile performing partners, Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham in the role made famous by Bing Crosby role) and his fiancée Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) are about to give up show business. Their plan is to settle into country life on a farm that Jim purchased at auction. Jim is eager while Lila is less convinced. She is easily led off on a dancing tour with Jim’s old buddy, Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu in the Fred Astaire role), who arrives with dates booked and in need of a gal to dance with. Thus our primary and secondary romantic couplings are resorted – Jim loses Lila to Ted, but focuses his attention on Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), whose farm Jim purchased.
It’s best not to dwell too deeply on individual plot points but go with the sweep of events. Other “let’s put on a show” movies are never far from mind (notably Summer Stock (1950) with its farm and dance tale). A whirl of holidays—Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1946, Valentine’s Day 1947, Easter 1947, Independence Day 1947, and Thanksgiving 1947—act as the guideposts to lurch the plot forward, with classic and less familiar Berlin tunes hung upon them.
“Blue Skies” is a grand hello to the country life, led by a boisterous and compelling Pinkham and the ensemble. “It’s a Lovely Day Today” is a gorgeous treatment of a walking tune at a walking tempo, during which Lila tells Jim they’re through, followed by the farm hand/maid/chief bottle-washer Louise pairing up with Jim to turn their focus on the farm itself. “White Christmas” is sung and reprised multiple times, in a variety of ways, in both acts, without ever playing as an imitation of the Bing Crosby’s original.
The source material from the film is fundamentally intact and there are lovely nods to M-G-M and other studio movies throughout. Before launching into “You’re Easy to Dance With,” some Corbin Bleu moves with a ghost light evoke a famous Astaire gesture with a hat rack. One of Linda’s costumes gives a tip of the hat to Judy Garland’s pink-ish shimmery over-the-elbow gloves and draped off-white dress in the Easter Parade movie finale.
There also are movie references that go into their own wonderful universe. Corbin Bleu’s marvelous interpretation of Astaire’s famous firecracker dance from the movie of Holiday Inn delights with expert and enthusiastic taps, spins, and explosions. Bleu leads Megan Lawrence and the entire ensemble in a nod to “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat (1935), with all eight ensemble couples evoking but not imitating Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their original solo dance.
Lawrence as the stalwart and wise farm hand, Louise, magnificently channels Marjorie Main as the maid in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the farmhand in Summer Stock (1950), and wisecracking Thelma Ritter in anything she ever did.
As the big dance numbers dominate, quiet dramatic scenes fade into the scenery, and there is unfortunately little sex appeal among any of the couples in a show with a plot that is in part powered by competing romances. Set design by Anna Louizos serves to frame the many scene changes but often feels flimsy and lighting design by Jeff Croiter is mostly over-bright. Perhaps the most powerful imagery in the show occurs in the penultimate scene in a bare-to-the-brick-wall movie studio, where falderal and frippery and holiday trimmings are pared away to reveal dark shadows where truths are told.
The highlight remains the ten-minute tap shoes dance number which encapsulates the drive of early 20th-century Berlin and the glory of the classic American musical. Director Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Denis Jones find a way to make this both an homage to the past and an entirely new wondrous, riotous event. But after several blow-out dancing and singing ensemble tunes before intermission, we are left with long sequences to ponder the plot in the second act. We remain hopelessly waiting for another glimpse of that sensational first act exuberance.