CENTERVILLE — With a veritable flurry of tap dances, love ballads, and scene and costume changes, a production of Holiday Inn with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin is no small undertaking. Like any elaborate holiday treat, this production doubtless took many hours of unseen labor to produce something that looks almost too good to eat. And while it delights the senses for the moment, don’t count on it to provide much in the way of nutritional value.
With libretto by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, the story follows sweet voiced crooner, Jim Hardy, who is determined to leave the work-a-day-show-biz life behind in favor of a simple and quiet life of farming. When he proposes marriage and a fresh start as a farmer’s wife to his stage partner, Lila Dixon, she gives him a tepid yes, then promptly embarks on another six week performing tour with the other member of their act, Ted Hanover, promising to return to Jim’s newly purchased farm in Connecticut when it’s over. Jim arrives at his new farm to discover back taxes and poor soil are not quite the romantic ideal he expected. He makes friends with the previous owner, Linda Mason, who gave up her own Broadway dreams years before. With the help of local handy-woman, Louise, and all his dancer friends from New York, they begin turning the farm into a holiday-themed performing hotel. While Linda and Jim grow closer, Ted and Lila’s tour is taking off. The plot spans a full year, providing lots of time for up and downs as well as splashy dance numbers for the musically under-served holidays like Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Easter, and Independence Day.
At its best, the plot is rooted in Jim’s journey of learning to trust and listen to others rather than trying to force them to fit into his ill-conceived dreams. There are also some nice moments around Jim and Ted’s friendship, but the overall message is as hazy as a frosted window pane. While it smells like ‘true love wins!’ it leaves the faint taste of ‘woman can’t be trusted and need a man to be successful and happy’ in the back of the mouth.
There are two casts for this CenterPoint production. I saw the Saturday cast and appreciated that each actor was giving their best to the show. Christian Johnston as Ted was debonair and charming, and Johnston deftly navigated a role that could lead into slimy territory. Rich Adams as Jim carried off the ‘gee-shucks’ every-man vibe just right, and his voice, especially when matched with girl-next-door Chelsey Reynolds as Linda was lovely. Brittany Bullen as the brash and brassy Louise was a scene-stealer. And Allison Hogge gave the ambitious bombshell Lila Dixon even more heart than the writers probably intended. The chorus of a dozen dancers and singers smiled and harmonized through their whirl of garland and tap numbers like the champions they are.
This viewing was my first production at CenterPoint Theater, and I was very impressed by the facility as well as the well-oiled machine of the staff and crew. Lights, scene changes, costumes, and music ran nearly flawlessly, thanks to stage manager Liz Williams. There were some outstanding moments of choreography by Jessica Merrill. I especially enjoyed the tricky synchronized jump rope sequence and Ted’s solo in, “Let’s Say it With Firecrackers.” Director Jim Christian’s command of visually balanced staging whipped up with moments of charm and whimsy were on full display. Beautifully executed props by Silas Stott and lovely costumes by Laurie Oswald (and what I hope is an army of seamstresses) lifted the whole production beyond itself. The design of Seth Miller’s lighting and Jay M. Clark’s sound blended seamlessly into the action of the show, while Scott Van Dyke’s simple set designs kept the complicated action moving quickly.
The audience around me of children, parents, and grandparents smiled and clapped as number and after number washed over them in joyful spectacle. And this perhaps jaded critic eventually decided to sit back and enjoy the sugary treat along with everyone else. After all, Christmas is no time for counting calories. If we chose to consume only a steady diet of the sappy, lightly misogynistic fluff offered by 1940’s musicals like Holiday Inn, we would surely be undernourished and unhealthy as a culture, but as an annual tender, sentimental escape, well, one bite never hurt anyone.