Why must so many musical comedies insist that young women who portray chorus girls have screechy silly voices? Must they act as if their brains are on a permanent leave of absence?
The first woman on view in HOLIDAY INN, THE NEW IRVING BERLIN MUSICAL is nightclub entertainer Lila Dixon appearing at The Cat’s Meow (which this musical isn’t). During the opening number, after her co-stars Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham) and Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu) finish their impressive hoofing, choreographer Denis Jones parts the ensemble like the Red Sea and there, far upstage, back to us for only a second is Lila, who spins around – to no applause.
Moral of the story: you can give a performer a star entrance, but if she isn’t a star — and Megan Sikora isn’t one yet — the audience can’t be expected to treat her as one.
After the number, Lila speaks in that low-class delivery that director Gordon Greenberg thinks will amuse an audience. Problem is, we find that she’s engaged to the man on that stage we’re most supposed to care about: Jim Hardy. That he wants to be the husband of a bubble-head makes us lose immediate respect for him.
As it turns out, they don’t seem fated to be mated, for Lila wants to continue in show business while Jim prefers to get away from it all and buy a foreclosed farm in Connecticut. Ted is willing to take Lila off Jim’s hands in more ways than one, so we also lose respect for him for wanting her.
When Jim reveals his rustic plans to see “Blue Skies,” Greenberg has his chorus members all react the identical way. Everyone simultaneously turns a head to the left, then after Jim divulges more of his plan, everyone turns a head to the right. They’re the same in a few more poses, too. The best directors ask their chorus members to find distinct personalities so they come across as individuals. But Greenberg is hoping this artificiality will buy him another few laughs.
What does get an impressed gasp occurs during “Heat Wave,” when Sikora, behind the wings, suddenly comes into view by t-h-r-o-w-i-n-g her entire body into the air before Bleu miraculously catches her deftly on his hip.
It’s only one of many chances that Jones makes everyone take. One number has plenty of men and women dancing while – yes! — jumping rope. Here’s the type of number that only live theater can make impressive, for if we saw it on film, we’d be hearing “Take 22!” in the backs of our heads.
The season has just started, but if Jones doesn’t get at least a Tony nomination, we’re in for some spectacular choreography in 2016-2017. His only mistake is having Lila visit to the farm, sit in a wheelbarrow and enjoy the ride that Jim gives her. Considering the diva that Lila is, she wouldn’t go near that filthy thing.
Greenberg, who wrote the book with Chad Hodge, both strain our credulity substantially more. All right, we’re used to Love at First Sight in this type of musical, so having Jim and Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer) experience this cliché isn’t lethal. But Linda is a former performer who quit to become a schoolteacher. And although 16 of Jim’s show biz friends come to help him put on a show every time there’s a holiday, you’d think that at least one of the eight women would take umbrage that Jim chose Linda and not one of them. But no, they all smile and dance happily behind her.
And if THAT’s not bad (and unbelievable) enough, Jim also features in each number his handywoman Louise. The closet lesbian (it’s 1946) has never expressed particular interest in performing nor does she give any indication that she’s ever sung or danced even in grammar school shows. But there she is center stage while the female dancers seem thrilled to back her up. Would you believe that pros from Manhattan would come to Connecticut and settle for chorus when rank beginners are getting showcased?
Louise is played by Megan Lawrence, who also sounds as if she’s a descendant of Minnie Mouse. There is no human being to be found in her characterization. Why wasn’t the vastly superior Susan Mosher, who played the role splendidly at Goodspeed two seasons ago, retained? Here’s hoping that not partaking was her decision. If Greenberg canned her, he’s made yet another terrible mistake in steering this show.
Irving Berlin would undoubtedly be pleased to be part of the show’s official title. And yet I daresay that he’d be infuriated by the scene in which Jim says he’s written a song for Linda – which turns out to be “White Christmas.” No, even in the fictionalized setting, Berlin wouldn’t want anyone else getting credit for his magnum opus.
After Jim sings one chorus of the Yuletide standard, Linda repeats it. We breathe a sigh of relief when Jim cues her with an upcoming lyric before she sings any, for Hollywood has led us to believe for decades that all anyone needs is to hear a song once to easily parrot back both melody and lyrics. We’re spared that here – until the second act when the one-hearing-is-enough convention comes into play during “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Jim doesn’t cue Linda here, but she’s letter-and-note perfect. Would that Greenberg had been careful with our brains.
The best part of the Pinkham-Gayer pairing is the love they manage to convey whenever they look at each other. Pinkham, however, is better suited to farce (such as in his much-acclaimed stint in A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE), for he doesn’t quite have the face we expect of a leading man. Corbin Bleu doesn’t make much of an impression, either. Sikora, however, is sincerely endearing.
The term “jukebox musical” has become a catch-all phrase for any show whose score is made up of old songs. But HOLIDAY INN deserves the appellation more than others, because many of these excellent Berlin ballads (“Easter Parade”), charm songs (“It’s a Lovely Day Today”) and up-tempos (“Heat Wave” pre-Martha and the Vandellas) really did inhabit jukeboxes back in their day. All 21 pass the test of time quite nicely.
While this would seem to be an ideal show for Roundabout subscribers, most of whom are no kids, the audience member at Saturday’s matinee who responded the loudest was the twentysomething man sitting next to me. How loud was his every “Whooo!” after most production numbers. So maybe there’s some youth appeal here after all.
And maybe not. Does anyone remember STEAMBATH, Bruce Jay Friedman’s 1970 comedy that took place in hell? One character says that she often assumed that death meant “You’d have to spend every day of your life in a different Holiday Inn.” Well, the show at Studio 54 isn’t remotely that hellish, but it does have so many liabilities that the line does come to mind.