RECOMMENDED An Old-Fashioned Walk
It’s that time of year again when holiday entertainments blossom like poinsettias in every theatre around Chicago. Two years ago a “new” musical opened on Broadway, after having tryouts at the tiny Goodspeed Opera House followed by a run at the enormous Muny Theatre. The musical proved to be a hit, although it was undeniably an old-fashioned walk down memory lane. The show was based upon the popular film from the early 1940’s, of the same name. The libretto was reworked by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, but they kept much of the score from the movie soundtrack, including the Oscar-winning “White Christmas.” The two book writers also scoured the Irving Berlin songbook to add several more musical gems that worked well with the plot.
Back in 1942, composer Irving Berlin provided the songs for a Paramount Pictures film about a Connecticut country inn that would only be open for business during every holiday. The movie starred Bing Crosby, as Jim Hardy, the professional singer who decides to leave show business and try his luck at farming; and Fred Astaire, as Ted Hanover, playing a famous Broadway dancer and Jim’s former stage partner. The cast also included Marjorie Reynolds, as Jim’s new love interest, Linda Mason; and Virginia Dale, as Jim’s former fiancee and song-and-dance partner, Lila Dixon.
The Marriott’s production of this show marks the first time that Chicago audiences will have seen this musical on stage. It’s only fitting, then, that this Midwest premiere is being directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, the Tony-nominated choreographer of the original Broadway production. Mr. Jones’ talent may be remembered at the Marriott for his direction/choreography of last season’s “Honeymoon in Vegas.” He’s also the critically acclaimed choreographer of the New York bound production of “Tootsie,” which recently had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. Well, it seems that Denis Jones has done it again!
There are two stars of this bright, perky musical. Truly, Denis Jones’ robust, intricate choreography is what theatergoers all leave talking about. But it’s also Irving Berlin’s songs, some of which might be unfamiliar to theatergoers, yet no less delightful, that make this production hum. As the show spans an entire year of holidays, we’re treated to such classic hits as “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade” and, of course, “White Christmas.”
The cast at the Marriott is, as always, stellar. This is one show that features a few topnotch leading actors, but relies heavily on a chorus of capable, classy triple-threats. They include Aaron Burr, Joe Capstick, Annie Jo Ermel, Alejandro Fonseca, Adam LaSalle, Jarran Muse, Tony Neidenbach, Madison Piner, Liam Quealy, Collin Sanderson, Laura Savage, Amanda Tanguay, Elizabeth Telford, Bethany Tesarck, Diana Vaden and, dance captain, Jessica Wolfrum. This Multitalented ensemble, who effortlessly sing, dance and turn into new characters at the drop of a hat, is worth the price of admission.
Chicago favorite Michael Mahler, last seen here in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” makes a comfortably contented Jim Hardy. That this actor/singer is also a brilliant musician allows Mahler to accompany himself and others on piano throughout the show. After leading the musical’s overture onstage, accompanied by Patti Garwood’s brilliant eight-member pit orchestra, Mahler gets to show off his vocal chops with several songs, like the sentimental, “The Little Things in Life.” Paired with Johanna McKenzie Miller, another favorite Chicago triple threat, the lovely and gifted actress plays Linda Mason. Together she and Mahler perform together, singing Berlin’s “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” and, of course, “White Christmas.” Ms. Miller portrays a sweet, single Connecticut woman who was once a performer, but is now content as the local school teacher. Jim has purchased the foreclosed home where Miss Mason grew up, so their connection is evident from the beginning. Together these two are a winning combination of talent.
Fresh off his Broadway turn as Ambrose Kemper in “Hello Dolly,” Will Burton makes an impish Ted Hanover, the song-and-dance man who was once Jim Hardy’s performing partner. He plays his role with an eye for the ladies, particularly if they’re equally as nimble on their feet as he. Burton is a standout in every number, but especially with the ladies’ ensemble in “You’re Easy to Dance With.” Petite firecracker, Kimberly Immanuel makes her favorable Marriott debut as the lubricious Lila Dixon. At one time, Jim Hardy’s girlfriend and singing partner, Miss Dixon has her eye trained on anyone who can further her career in show business. Living on a farm in rural Connecticut isn’t part of her plans for the future.
Two members of the cast, however, practically steal this production with ease. Young Patrick Scott McDermott is dynamic and hilarious as 10-year-old Charlie Winslow, one of Linda Mason’s students. His energetic presence, dry delivery of dialogue, precise comic timing and his talent as a young singer and dancer brought him applause with every scene. This little actor is a force to watch. He alternates the role with Preetish Chakraborty, at certain performances. But the shining star at the top of this Christmas tree is one of Chicago’s most exquisite theatrical treasures, the incomparable Marya Grandy. Ms. Grandy plays Jim Hardy’s lady handy-man, Louise Badger. Not only does Ms. Grandy have her share of funny lines, but this brilliant actress is a master of how to expertly land a laugh. Comic timing is an art form in Marya’s hands, yet she’s equally thrilling as a high-belting singer. At the Marriott, Ms. Grandy has been enjoyed in productions of “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Sister Act,” “How to Succeed…” and “On the Town,” to name just a few. Life is always a little lovelier when Marya Grandy is onstage to bring laughter and levity to a production.
With the added enhancement of Anthony Churchill’s creative projections and media design, Scott Davis’ spartan scenic work is flawless. Sally Dolembo has designed and created a vast array of colorful period costumes that are the icing on the cake. Her pink and red raiments are properly romantic for Valentine’s Day, with the number, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Ms. Dolembo’s comically blithe bonnets, modeled by the ensemble during “Easter Parade,” along with her sparkly and patriotic red, white and blue fashions, for “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers/Song of Freedom,” are all magnificent and memorable. And, as always, Jesse Klug’s expert lighting design adds the perfect sparkle to everything.
Marriott’s latest production is a pleasant, entertaining old-fashioned musical that features a nostalgic score by one of America’s greatest composers. Of Irving Berlin’s hundreds of well-known compositions, this homey harmonic comedy is like a ramble down memory lane, offering more than two dozen much-loved songs. As timely as mistletoe, the show begins just before Christmas and runs through the holiday season of the following year. Gifted with a wonderful cast of talented performers, director and choreographer Denis Jones has recreated the magic and majesty he brought to Broadway with this theatre’s most recent holiday hit.