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A year of holidays all lead up to that Irving Berlin song 'White Christmas'


 Yes, hostelry jokes abound in staging “Holiday Inn” at a Marriott. Get them out of your system. I’ll wait.

This show, now in its regional premiere at Marriott Lincolnshire, is not “White Christmas.” That Irving Berlin song features prominently, however, because it actually made its first appearance (sung by Bing Crosby, ‘natch) in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” which preceded the 1954 Crosby film called “White Christmas,” which was turned into a stage musical in 2000. “Holiday Inn” didn’t make that leap (with tap dancing, waltzing and even jump-roping galore) until 2014.

So if you’re looking for the heartwarming story about the returned World War II vets doing a showbiz tribute to their former commander, “Holiday Inn” isn’t the place to make your reservations. All clear?

Happily, Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge’s book improves in some important ways over the original screenplay. Since the latter included a mind-numbingly racist blackface interlude, there was a lot of improvement to be made, frankly. The basic outlines of the story are the same, but the additions flesh it out with comic aplomb and add richer nuance, particularly to the women characters, who on film are generally variations on the theme of shallow scheming showbiz climbers. (Thankfully we’ve moved away from the idea that ambitious women are heartless, right?)

Jim Hardy (Michael Mahler), a songwriter/singer tired of entertaining, decides to buy a farm in Connecticut and retire there with his fellow performer/paramour, Lila Dixon (Kimberly Immanuel). But when the third leg of their showbiz stool, hoofer par excellence Ted Hanover (Will Burton) gets a chance to go on a big tour, Lila goes with him. Jim moves to Connecticut, despite his acerbic manager Danny Reed (Lorenzo Rush Jr.) warning him “You’ll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings.” Instead, he discovers that farming is — surprise, surprise — actual hard work and not a day at the spa.

Jim finds a friend in Linda Mason (Johanna McKenzie Miller), the schoolteacher daughter of the deceased former farm owner who shelved her own showbiz aspirations long ago. In one of the happiest additions to the original, Jim also gets a live-in handywoman, Louise (Marya Grandy), who apparently graduated first in her class in the Eve Arden School of Scene-Stealing Ripostes. Little Charlie Winslow (Patrick Scott McDermott) also shows up like clockwork to deliver bad news from the bank to Jim and from-the-mouths-of-babes comments about “spinsters” to Linda.

When Jim’s old gang of back-up dancers shows up at Christmas, the “holiday inn” is born and Jim’s financial troubles end. (Just go with the idea that a place can turn a profit by only being open a few nights a year.) But newly dumped Ted shows up on New Year’s Eve and proceeds to woo Linda as his new partner, since Lila has run off with a millionaire.

Giving Linda more agency and backstory here is one of the best decisions Greenberg and Hodge made. Miller is aces as a woman who, as she tells Charlie, “likes being level-headed and independent,” but still yearns for just a little something more. Mahler’s Jim is affable but also self-pitying, while Burton’s Hanover, like Fred Astaire in the film, is a self-absorbed charmer. (Fortunately, unlike the original, Linda’s interest in Ted is entirely professional and she doesn’t change her affections at the drop of a hat.)

Immanuel’s Lila also has more heart and heat than her cinematic counterpart. “I’ve always wanted to be normal — after I’m famous,” she tells Jim early on. It’s a line that lands in Immanuel’s delivery with refreshing and understandable honesty. Why shouldn’t she want fame before the farm?

As for the Berlin score, that largely takes care of itself under the baton of conductor Patti Garwood. (Ryan T. Nelson provided the music direction.) It’s comfort-food Berlin, with pleasant numbers such as “Blue Skies” and “Cheek to Cheek” interspersed with songs from the film, such as “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” and “You’re Easy to Dance With.” What matters is how they’re presented.

Director/choreographer Denis Jones re-creates his original Broadway staging for Marriott’s in-the-round configuration with brio and wit. In particular, “Shaking the Blues Away,” in which all manner of holiday paraphernalia gets put to creative choreographic use (including strands of Christmas lights used as jump ropes) is exhilarating. (The “Heat Wave” number Lila and Ted perform on the road does lean pretty heavily on generic “island” kitsch.)

Arguably, some of the dialogue feels more wink-and-nod contemporary than the late 1940s setting. But the tension between the sharper elbows thrown in the script and the unapologetic nostalgia of the score doesn’t throw Jones’ production off balance. It’s more like a holiday buffet. The big meaty production numbers featuring the stellar 16-member ensemble (beautifully bedecked in Sally Dolembo’s costumes) complement the savory side-dish comic relief provided by Grandy’s Louise (who frankly deserves her own show).

And if it’s a reliable seasonal dessert you crave, Miller and Mahler deliver the goods with The Big Song. This isn’t the “White Christmas” you used to know, exactly. But it’s a perfectly enjoyable homage with some welcome flavorful twists.