It’s early in the year to blame a weight gain on the holidays, but after seeing Holiday Inn, the new Irving Berlin musical at Studio 54, I was afraid to step on the scale for fear some of the sweetness from the stage had caused my numbers to go up.
Holiday Inn, which was written by Chad Hodge and Gordon Greenberg, follows the song-and-dance team Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham) and Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu), who part ways when Jim, determined to escape showbiz, buys a farm in Connecticut. Loosely adapted from the film, which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, the musical is packed with Berlin toe-tappers including “Heat Wave,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” as Jim pursues a “normal life” (it doesn’t go as planned) and an inevitable romance that results when such old-fashioned and romantic songs are being crooned.
Jim and Ted perform alongside Lila (Megan Sikora, very funny), Jim’s girlfriend and an underwritten part that doesn’t go beyond the “dumb blonde” who wants to be famous. She accepts Ted’s marriage proposal before learning of his plans for their future but soon breaks his heart by refusing to leave the stage. It’s a good thing the farm Ted purchased has previously been owned by the lovely Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), who once pursued a life upon the wicked stage but is now a small-town school teacher. The two harmonize beautifully when they sing, so romance must be inevitable. Linda’s talents aren’t wasted in the country; Jim is not exactly skilled at farming and soon decides to feature performers at his home – but only on national holidays. Ted is joined in his pursuits, both professional and personal, by his well-intentioned busybody handywoman Louise (performed the night I saw it by an excellent Jenifer Foote).
The musical’s book, by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge is, at times, much too predictable, while its moments of self-conscious satire are welcome. (When Jim tells Linda, “I got a little emotional moving in,” she deadpans, “Yes, I heard you singing about it.” Another character complains of Connecticut, “I was almost stung by a WASP.” And at times it falls into the formula of: a scene of dialogue on the farm, followed by a showbiz number, repeat.
But the spirit of the story, as well as the cast, who are directed by Greenberg, is infectious. Pinkham, an accomplished stage actor, brings a self-deprecating charm to the role of Jim, while Bleu’s joy at tapping on Broadway is apparent in every scene. The former star of “High School Musical” is all grown up and brings a masculine charm to the role – a welcome characteristic, as his character is quite selfish and determined to find another dance partner after Lila deserts him for a wealthy Texan.
Too bad for Jim that the partner Ted wants is Linda. He attempts to find her in the elaborate number, “You’re Easy to Dance With,” one of the many examples of creative choreography by Denis Jones, another being the simultaneous tap-dancing and jump-roping in “Shakin’ The Blues Away” and Bleu’s literally explosive Fourth of July number.
It’s the roles of the women that are severely underwritten in Holiday Inn, which one might credit to the show being set in 1946, a time when men even described their hangovers artistically but is also representative of many shows produced on Broadway. Linda, who lives alone, tells her student (an amusing Morgan Gao), “I like being independent and level-headed,” only to be told, “My mom calls that a spinster.” The script even mentions the clichéd fear of an unmarried woman who dying by choking, with no one to save her. While Pinkham’s performance as the broken-hearted Jim inspires a great deal of sympathy, perhaps he should have asked his girlfriend what she wanted in her future before purchasing the farm in Connecticut? And when he fears Ted whisking Linda away to Hollywood, the real conflict seems to be that he doesn’t trust his girlfriend to remain faithful to him – and that, while Ted and Jim argue over what Linda wants, it’s only the elderly manager (Wilkoff), who actually asks her the question.
The story of Holiday Inn is predictable, yes, and dated. It is corny at times and also extremely sweet. The movie was released in 1942, a time when needed a boost. And, in at the end of a seemingly interminable, vicious and increasingly desperate Presidential election, it’s a good time for this tap-happy burst of optimism to arrive on Broadway.