By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
There’s no more an appropriate time to present Irving Berlin’s ‘Holiday Inn’ than during the festive season of holiday time. With songs like “White Christmas” and “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” it’s a no-brainer that people looking for holiday cheer will wrap themselves in something warm and welcoming during the period that passes for winter in New Orleans.
With Irving Berlin as the master, such a gift of songs and major dance numbers as “Easter Parade,” “Plenty To Be Thankful For,” “Blue Skies” and “Shaking the Blues Away” serves to turn what was originally a 1942 black and white film that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire into a major new Broadway review of Berlin music and splashy new choreography. When it opened at Studio 54 on Broadway, it starred Brice Pinkham (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”) and Corbin Bleu.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society is presenting the regional premiere of this work, which finishes its two-weekend run on Sunday. Directed by Leslie Castay, the production stars Richard Arnold in the Bing Crosby role of Jim Hardy and Alcee Jones in the Fred Astaire role of Ted Hanover. Chloe Vallot also stars as Linda Mason, the object of Jim’s desire.
Comic relief is provided by Tracey Collins in the role of Louise, who manages to steal practically every scene she’s in. Also singing and dancing her way into our hearts is Bailey Gabrish, who plays original singing and dancing partner in the act, Lila Dixon.
Self-absorbed and egocentric, she is swept off her feet by Ted, despite the fact that Jim has asked to marry her. Her dreams have stars in her eyes, not love in her heart, although she accepts Jim’s proposal.
Wanting to get away from the rat race of show business, Jim tells Lila of his plans to buy a small farm in Connecticut and seek out a quiet existence. But Lila will hear none of it, electing to make the act a duo with Ted, as Jim leaves the act to find himself in a rural setting.
Louise is acting as the caretaker of Mason Farm, a rundown, sad excuse for a facility that has more bills than livestock, but has Linda, a charming and beautiful scion, for whom Jim immediately falls hard.
Arnold has made a habit recently of playing the leads in a great many musicals. He was Georg in Summer Lyric at Tulane’s She Loves Me and Captain Georg von Trapp in JPAS’s The Sound of Music. He has an easy way with a song and with gems like “Blue Skies,” “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” and “White Christmas,” he is a delight, moving deftly across the stage and singing with warmth and charm.
In order to make the farm a success, Jim decides to open his “Holiday Inn,” a place where his fellow entertainers can go during the holidays when they are not working. This allows a procession of Berlin songs dealing with various celebrations throughout the year.
Recently seen as Usnavi in JPAS’s production of In the Heights, Jones enjoys leading the bigger dance roles of “Heat Wave,” “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Cheek to Cheek,” finding favor with in particular with the large ensemble of female dancers in several numbers.
Once again, choreographer Kenneth Beck does an outstanding job working with both the intimate numbers between two or three players as well as with the larger works that feature more of the ensemble.
The interaction between Jim and Ted is always interesting in this work. At the opening it is established that Ted is always stealing the girl for whom he has an attraction. Early on that’s Lila and no matter how hard Jim tries, she has stars in her eyes as Ted oozes and charms her away from Jim.
After the act breaks up and Jim finds himself on the farm courting Linda, there is a reluctance on his part to let Ted know about her in fear that he may try to steal her away, too. In fact, a drunken Ted shows up one night at the farm and chances to dance with Linda before Jim intervenes. When Ted awakens and enjoys a sober moment, he recalls how wonderful a dancer he had been with, but can’t remember who it was.
That sets up his quest to find out who it was so that he can have a new partner for his act. It’s Jim’s worst fears coming true and he does his level best to keep Linda away from Ted’s prying eyes and dancing feet. Despite his best efforts, though, Linda is found out and Ted convinces her that she has an opportunity to be be a big star in Hollywood.
Eventually, both Lila and Linda end up back on the farm looking for something else to improve their lives. For Lila, it’s about getting back into show business after leaving a Texas millionaire and for Linda, it’s about getting busy with Jim. It only takes another Berlin ditty, “Song of Freedom,” to get things sorted out between the girls and the guys.
Adam Segrave plays manager Danny, always looking to find talent and make a deal, even if it’s not necessarily the best for his artists. Caleb Cantrell and Trey Dieth alternate the wisecracking Charlie Winslow,
With Michael Paternostro serving as musical director, maestro and artistic director Dennis Assaf leads the full Jefferson Pit Orchestra in the tender treatment of all of these marvelous Berlin classics. There really is nothing like hearing a large orchestra translating these songs from the printed page to the stage. There’s also a complement of six pit singers to supplement the larger numbers when the stage is full of dancers.
Eric Porter continues to impress with his scenic designs that effectively move from Broadway to Connecticut to Hollywood. He does double duty on this show with sound designs too.
Scott Sauber adds his supple touch to the lighting designs, especially effective with the more intimate and expressive scenes behind the piano or on the farm as well as the more spectacular larger numbers like “Easter Parade.” The costumes are provided through the REV Theatre Company with Tiffany Howard’s designs coordinated by Avery Colle. Amanda Bravender does a wonderful job providing wigs and makeup.
Irving Berlin’s ‘Holiday Inn’ finishes its run at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie with shows on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and a final Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m For tickets, call 504-885-2000 or click here.