Left to right: Rachel Hafell, Gino Bloomberg, Harli Cooper, Eliza Donahue, David Borum, Joey Banigan, and Embry Thielmeier & Avery Draper Davis (front). Photo: DDP
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn
Based on the film from Universal Pictures
Music & lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Gordon Greenberg & Chad Hodge
Produced and directed by Lee Bukcholz
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2018, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
As a kid, I remember watching White Christmas (1954) every year with my family. When I got a little older I came across Holiday Inn, the 1941 precursor that also starred Bing Crosby, but paired with Fred Astaire, and introducing the song “White Christmas”. There was a widely held opinion among some of my friends that it was the superior movie, an attitude that remained as long as we were only watching the edited version on commercial television. Because you see, they always cut the Blackface number. Once you see it, all innocence about this movie is lost. It forever tarnishes a film that contains two of Fred Astaire’s most innovative numbers: the firecracker dance, and the drunken New Year’s Eve tango that is a masterpiece of comic movement. Even for the time this number, egregiously inserted for the Lincoln’s Birthday sequence (yes, it was once a holiday), seems shocking and offensive.
There is also an awful lot of unsavory, misogynistic sexual politics concerning how the two male leads fight for professional and personal ownership of the women in the story. Watching it now demands an active thumb on the forward button, lest you cringe.
So I was extremely curious about this update for the stage. Thankfully, it excises all traces of these distasteful elements, remaining an old-fashioned, high energy musical while updating its outmoded sensibilities for a contemporary audience. It even drops some sly LGBTQAI+ reference, although it remains a very white bread entertainment. Still, the Derby Dinner Playhouse professionalism is firing on all cylinders, with Ron Riall’s tidy, economical sets and dazzling costumes from Sharon Murray Harrah. And Music Director Scott Bradley’s band kicked up the beat and the volume to just the right levels.
The Derby Dinner Playhouse synopsis reads: “Jim Hardy (David Borum) leaves the bright lights of show business behind to settle down on his farmhouse in Connecticut. He quickly discovers life isn’t the same without a bit of song and dance. Jim’s luck takes a spectacular turn when he meets Linda (Kaitlyn Sage), a spirited schoolteacher with talent to spare. Together they turn the farmhouse into a fabulous inn with dazzling performances to celebrate each holiday, from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July.”
So Jim’s partner, super hoofer Ted Hanover (Gino Bloomberg) is slightly deemphasized compared to the film, although he functions in much the same way, coming between Jim and Linda to provide the conflict that drives act two. He also leads an inexhaustible Ensemble in some of the most athletic dancing I’ve ever seen on this stage. Truly, choreographer Heather Paige Folsom has outdone herself here. The Black “mammy” housekeeper from the movie is mercifully replaced by Louise (Mandi Elkins Hutchins), a tall, red-head drink of water who leads the troupe in a lively “Shaking the Blues Away” near the end of the first act that left even the audience breathless. The members of that Ensemble are David Alea, Dick Baker, Joey Banigan, Matthew Blum, Harli Cooper, Avery Draper Davis, Eliza Donahue, Rachel Hafell, A. J. Hughes, Tony Milder, Embry Thielmeier, & Nate Wiley.
And, unless I miss my guess, Louise is also written and performed as an homage to legendary character actress Mary Wickes, who appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows, including White Christmas (considered something of a remake of this story). It is of particular note that two pieces of comic business also point to Louise being Gay. The first is subtle, but the second was unmistakable (Veronica Lake was THE It girl of 1941). In either event, Hutchins’ boisterous knack for comedy, with timing as sharp as her cheekbones, is a highlight of the show.
Beckett Gunderson (alternating performances with Asa Milner) handily steals every scene he has as a tow-headed messenger boy from the bank delivering overdue bills to Jim after he buys the farm, and Clay Smith does solid work expressing hyperbolic comic exasperation in the clichéd role of Ted’s Manager, Danny.
The four principals all sing and move like the pros that they are, and deliver the requisite charm and snap to the dialogue. I’m a sucker for the kind of jazzy dance that Sarah Bomber carried off as Lila Dixon, the first woman that comes between the two buddies and whose sights are resolutely set on stardom. Her big numbers with Ted brought some heat to the DDP stage on a colder-than-usual November evening.
Gino Bloomberg is a terrific dancer, although I did question the decision to have him perform, however truncated, that iconic firecracker number. It just doesn’t seem fair to be placed in such a comparative relationship with the great Astaire. Who could stand up to that?
Kaitlyn Sage was in fine voice as Linda and has a stronger character perhaps than her movie ancestor. In the crucial moment in her struggle to decide between Hollywood and Ted, or Connecticut and Jim, she is given the line, “Let me do my own thinking!” which cannot help but seem a deliberate corrective to what the original movie could never afford the character.
David Borum is so plaintive in his demeanor that he makes sense of Jim’s choice to abandon show business for a rustic farm, but he also sings beautifully and nails all of the humor. That All American earnestness is perfectly suited to the absurd but inevitable moment when the solution to all of his problems is offered up as, “let’s put on a show! We’ve got everything we need right here!” That it falls to Louise/Mandi Hutchins to deliver these impossibly corny lines is a wise choice, but if Mr. Borum seems to conjure Mickey Rooney more than Bing Crosby, well…it is not a bad fit.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn
November 14 – December 31, 2018
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.