It’s only mid November but obviously not too early for theaters to ring in the holiday season. It’s certainly cold enough. The Marriott Theatre is presenting the regional premiere of “Holiday Inn,” a very slender musical built on the Irving Berlin songbook, which, among other standards, gives us “White Christmas,” a song that virtually defines the Christmas season in America.
“Holiday Inn” is a 2016 stage adaptation of the 1942 motion picture of the same name, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. That film, in turn, was remade in 1994 as “White Christmas,” with Crosby back and this time co-starred with Danny Kaye. And, like the earlier film, “White Christmas” has been adapted into a stage musical that has played this area a few times over the years.
“Holiday Inn” is strongest at the Marriott when the high energy when the cast sings and dances. When the music stops and the talking begins, things can flatten out, though it is still better than the wearisome “White Christmas” live version.
Credit choreographer Denis Jones, who also directs and was the original choreographer for the show, for creating a considerable number of spritely dances that give the talented chorus its chance to sparkle to such Berlin hits as “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holiday,” and “Heat Wave.” An ensemble production number featuring jump roping was the showstopper of the evening.
The plot deals with the romantic and career stresses of a three-person song and dance act consisting of Jim Hardy (Michael Mahler), Ted Hanover (Will Burton), and Lila Dixon (Kimberley Immauel). Hardy and Dixon pair off as the initial romantic interest until Hardy decides he’s had enough of show business and buys a farm in Vermont. His departure breaks up the act and the narrative then shifts to Hardy and his difficulties as a novice farmer in New England.
The romantic element restarts with the appearance of Linda Mason (Johanna McKenzie Miller and the heroine of the evening), an unmarried schoolteacher in a nearby town. Hardy and Mason naturally fall for each other, leading to improbable romantic convolutions in the second act when Hanover arrives unexpectedly, and drunk, at the farm. He discovers that schoolmarm Mason is a talented singer and hoofer who would be perfect as his partner, Lila Dixon having departed to join up with a Texas millionaire. Hardy takes great exception to Hanover trying to lure Mason away from him, Hanover having a history of taking over Hardy’s girlfriends.
The name of the show comes from Hardy’s decision to turning the unprofitable farm into a venue for live entertainment, though open only for major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter, and the like. How Hardy intends to make money out of a high-class nightclub that is only open a few days a year is not explored by book writers Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. But if the characters aren’t bothered by the tenuous economic prospects of the inn, why should the audience concern themselves?
The show garnishes the main plot with a couple of comic appearances the Marriott opening night audience ate up. One comes from Marya Grandy, who plays the wisecracking handywoman who attaches herself to Jim Hardy’s romantic and economic problems. Grandy looks and sounds a lot like Ann B. Davis as Schultzy in the old Robert Cummings TV sitcom and later as housekeeper Alice Nelson in “The Brady Bunch.” Grandy is very funny and she also has a potent singing voice.
The other supporting player of note is young Patrick Scott McDermott who bursts into the action periodically as little Charlie Winslow, one of those children who talks like an adult on stage. Many audiences find this type of comically precocious character adorable. Others may grind their teeth. McDermott handles the role with unselfconscious professionalism and the Marriott crowd gave him an ovation every time he left the stage.
A third supporting performance deserves commendation, though his stage time was slight. Lorenzo Rush Jr. plays Hanover’s pushy agent. Rush is one of those actors who elevate a seemingly throwaway cameo role into a genuine contribution to the show, partly because of his impressive bulk and partly because of his spot-on comic timing.
The songs in “Holiday Inn” are good and the choreography delightful, but the main reason to see the show is Johanna McKenzie Miller’s performance as Linda Mason. Miller is a veteran of Chicagoland theater who has made her mark mostly as an actress. In “Holiday Inn” she not only acts with beautifully as the schoolteacher bravely trying to put a brave face on her loneliness, but she is an expressive singer and a nifty dancer. It’s a complete performance that elevates a basically commonplace vehicle into an intelligent slice of entertainment every time she is on stage.
The physical production is highlighted by Sally Dolembo’s colorful costumes, especially in the chorus numbers. Anthony Churchill provides atmospheric projections on the walls behind the audience in the in-the-round theater. Both are joined by Scott Davis (set design), Jesse Klug (lighting design), Robert E. Gilmartin (sound design), and Eleanor Kahn (properties design).
“Holiday Inn” is an audience show for customers comfortable with stereotyped characters, improbable storylines, nostalgic songs, and exuberant dancing. At least it is an improvement over “White Christmas” on stage. I also thought the selections from the Irving Berlin canon are better, and Johanna McKenzie Miller’s front and center performance will give any musical production an edge.