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SCRUTINY | Shaw’s ‘Holiday Inn’ Is A Stellar Musical With Heart

By Paula Citron on November 29, 2021

Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy, Gabrielle Jones as Louise and the cast of Irving Berlin’s HOLIDAY INN (2021). (Photo: David Cooper)
Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy, Gabrielle Jones as Louise and the cast of Irving Berlin’s HOLIDAY INN (2021). (Photo: David Cooper)

Shaw Festival/Holiday Inn, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, music direction by Paul Sportelli, directed by Kate Hennig, Festival Theatre, Nov. 14 to Dec. 23. Tickets available here

Yes, this stage version of Holiday Inn is based on the 1942 Paramount film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that introduced the Irving Berlin song White Christmas to the world. And is it worth the schlepp to Niagara-on-the-Lake? You bet it is. This Shaw Festival production is a class act from start to finish.

The idea for a stage version of Holiday Inn was the brainchild of Chris Herzberger of Live Theatricals at Universal Stage Productions, who felt that Irving Berlin’s story and songs would make a good Broadway musical. Thus, what began in a conference room made it to Broadway in 2016 in an adaptation by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. The Shaw Festival first presented Holiday Inn in 2019. Thank goodness for revivals.

The basic plot remains the same as the movie. Jim Hardy (Kyle Blair), Ted Hanover (Kyle Golemba) and Lila Dixon (Vanessa Sears) are a popular New York nightclub song and dance trio. Jim, however, is planning to leave the act and retire with Lila to a farm he has bought in Connecticut. When their agent Danny (Jay Turvey) tells them about a tour he’s booked, Lila and Ted form a duo, leaving Jim broken-hearted at losing Lila.

Greenberg and Hodge simplified the plot by having Linda Mason (Kristi Frank) being a former owner of Jim’s farm. Now a school teacher, Linda once wanted to be a performer. In the movie, Linda is an ambitious Broadway wannabe. They also created the character of Louise (Gabrielle Jones), a tough as nails farmhand who helps out Jim. There is also the precocious child Charlie Winslow (I think I saw Julia Thompson — the part is shared by two young girls). Charlie delivers bad news letters from the bank and the tax department.

When Jim turns out to be a hopeless farmer, he, Linda and Louise come up with the idea of opening the farm as Holiday Inn, with shows only on major holidays. Greenberg and Hodge, however, eliminated Lincoln’s Birthday (in the movie, a black face minstrel show) and Washington’s Birthday (which included the myth about chopping down the cherry tree).

The rest of the plot follows the movie, with Lila leaving Ted to be with a millionaire, and Ted wanting Linda to be his new dance partner, and Jim desperately trying to keep Linda and Ted apart, and Hollywood making a movie about Holiday Inn etc. Of course, it all ends happily.

Is there anything that Kate Hennig cannot do? She is an esteemed actor, a gifted playwright and an acclaimed director. As director of Holiday Inn, she has brought in real emotion. This musical could have been a phone in, but we really feel Jim’s pain at not just losing one girl, but the possibility of losing two. What a great singing actor Blair is.

Blair’s colleagues are also top drawer. Golemba can dance up a storm, Sears is a real siren, Frank has the requisite charm as the girl next door, and Turvey is genuinely funny as the pushy agent, while Jones relishes her scene-stealing part with all the great lines. I’m crediting Hennig for ensuring such strong character portrayals. And yes, they all can sing, and when necessary, dance. In other words, this production of Holiday Inn is more than just music. It has heart.

Choreographer Allison Plamondon is from New York, but is originally from Edmonton, so she is, technically, one of ours. Her dances are sparkling, inventive and impressive, and there are a lot of them for the principals and the energetic ensemble. They all look different, which is a feat unto itself, and I’m so glad she did her own version of Fred Astaire’s firecracker dance for the July 4th sequence. This show just lifts off the stage.

And, oh, the music. Irving Berlin at his greatest. How about Steppin’ Out With My Baby, It’s A Lovely Day Today, Shaking The Blues Away, Happy Holiday, Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk, and of course White Christmas. The adapters have also found places to add in more great hits like Blue Skies, Cheek to Cheek and Heat Wave. Kudos to Paul Sportelli for his lively musical direction.

Judith Bowden’s spectacular sets and costumes help define the production and give it its lightness of feeling. By making the farm grid white wood, everything that follows has a bright tone. It is a show awash in pastels, which are absolutely beautiful. In fact, the only darker colours are in some of the costumes of the ensemble and some flown backdrops. It’s a lighthearted show and Bowden has absolutely matched the mood, making for entrancing visuals. And the hats she designed for Easter Parade have to be seen to be believed. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting happily carries on the brightness and lightness.

For next season, the Shaw has announced White Christmas as its holiday show. It, of course, is based on the 1954 movie, also starring Bing Crosby, which, funnily, used the same sets as Holiday Inn. Is there going to be a connector with the musical Holiday Inn? There is a similarity in the storyline. We’ll have to wait and see.

For a final factoid, Kemmons Wilson, who founded the Holiday Inn motel chain in 1952, named his new venture after the movie.

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Paula Citron
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