May Your Days be Merry and Bright: Paper Mill Playhouse’s Spirited “Holiday Inn”

While the Thanksgiving weekend kicked-off the holiday season of bright lights and joy across America, Paper Mill Playhouse charted its own seasonal stars with a high-spirited, megawatt premiere of Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn.”

As the second consecutive production of the Tony Award-wining theater’s 80th anniversary season under producing artistic director, Mark S. Hoebee, it was a delightful holiday-themed uplift!

The two-act musical was inspired by the music and lyrics of Berlin’s classic 1942 Universal Pictures film starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, a romantic comedy time-capsule about two ex-showbiz friends toe-tapping for the same small-town girl who channels her inner diva in Edith Head’s impossibly-glamorous gowns.

(Above: Music Director Shawn Gough, Choreographer Denis Jones, Director and Co-Author Gordon Greenberg, and Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee)

Director Gordon Greenberg, who co-wrote the well-paced book with Chad Hodge, took musical and artistic liberties in adapting Berlin’s tale from screen to stage, which first opened on Broadway in 2016 in a Roundabout Theater Company production that netted a Tony Award nomination for Best Choreography via its choreographer, Denis Jones.

Greenberg played to Berlin’s strengths by curating his vast musical oeuvre into a tasteful mélange, no easy task: Berlin (photo above) wrote over 1,200 songs in his lifetime! “White Christmas,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Stepping out with my Baby” were just some of the 20+ chestnuts chosen from the massive catalog of beloved melodies.

The art of Berlin’s score was entrusted to music director, Shawn Gough, a lively maestro who led the pocket square orchestra with Bernstein-like swagger, snap, and bravado on the podium. Keyboardists, pianists, percussionists, bassists, and woodwinds nailed the right rhythms from conga to blues to ballads, and gave the cast room to breathe between the story’s lightning transitions.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Nicholas Rodriguez as Jim, Ann Harada as Louise, and company; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Stage as cavalcade!

Jones’ high-flying, Tony Award-nominated choreography relied heavily on the enormous range and stellar synchronicity of its talented ensemble. Set against festive holiday trimmings, Act I’s memorable “Shaking the Blues Away” was an incandescent, circus-themed tap starring Anna Harada as Louise, the resident caretaker, pants-wearer, and matchmaker with joyful, nonstop, nimble energy and a commanding Ruth Etting vibrato. Act II’s “Easter Parade” was a pageantry of spring finery (and millinery), and made creative use of the orchestra pit catwalk.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Jeff Kready as Ted, Hayley Podschun as Linda, Nicholas Rodriguez as Jim, and company; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Greenberg whittled-down Berlin’s characters into genial archetypes (such a Danny, the veteran talent agent, played by a cynical but simpatico Jordon Gelber) transposed to an optimistic time-stamp — 1946 — no 1942 wartime doom and gloom here!

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Nicholas Rodriguez as Jim and company; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.)

While the movie defers to the calendar’s big and small holidays underpinned by Christmas — it opens with Fred Astaire in a tap-off with a Goodwill Santa under Christmas Eve snow — the stage production spotlights romantic drama to maximize the happy Hollywood ending. Like Louise says twice, “There’s no bigger holiday than a wedding.” And if you didn’t hear her the first time, the curtain rises on a Brooklyn nightclub with an engagement-themed number, and it falls on a rustic country wedding (photo above).

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.)

To highlight seasonal transitions, costume designer Alejo Vietti’s endless wardrobe gave cues. Vibrant and playful, costumes hinted at late 40s tailoring, often amplified into exaggerated extremes: vertigo pinstripes, blown-up prints, and bold plaids. Palettes reflected seasonal tones: burnished hues of auburn, chestnut, and orange for Thanksgiving gave way to glacial blues for Xmas. Spring came in like a lamb with straw boaters, pastel ginghams, and white leather shoes. Charles G. Lapointe’s hair and wig designs tastefully balanced naturalistic with stylized 40s ‘dos.

The principal cast’s great chemistry, sterling voices, and genuine camaraderie made for memorable music making.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Hayley Podschun as Linda and Nicholas Rodriguez as Jim; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Protagonist Jim Hardy (played by Nicholas Rodriguez) swaps the bright lights of show business for a quiet, rural Connecticut home, Mason Farmhouse, conceptualized by scenic designer Anna Louizos as a provincial estate with vintage props.

As soon as Jim realizes that farm life isn’t what he expected, he falls in love with a local school teacher, Linda Mason (played by Hayley Podschun), the former owner of the farmhouse with hidden Broadway talent. Rodriguez’s Jim was charming and affable with a pleasant, flexible lyric baritone, which showed great tenderness and vulnerability in the book’s tender moments.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Hayley Podschun as Linda with Karl Skyler Urban, Jordan Beall, and Julie Kavanagh; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Linda sticks by Jim’s side as the farmhouse becomes an inn to avoid foreclosure, with bank notices hand-delivered by the precocious Charlie Winslow, played by an affable Jian Harrell (alternating with Aidan Alberto.) Podschun brought unflagging spirit to a role scripted for wholesomeness. She was witty and strong-willed, with a heartfelt, introspective “Nothing More to Say” soliloquy. Her icy-edged soprano thawed for a sweet “White Christmas” duet with Rodriguez under Jeff Croiter’s flattering lighting designs.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Jeff Kready as Ted, Hayley Podschun as Linda, Nicholas Rodriguez as Jim; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Jeff Kready as Ted Hanover brought a clean-cut, athletic flair to the role of the narcissist who comes between Jim and Linda before luring her away to Hollywood. Kready had big, Fred Astaire tap shoes to fill with the bang-snap-happy “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers” number, and he did it with easy charm and skill.

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; Jeff Kready as Ted and Paige Faure as Lila; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

With a clear bright soprano, Paige Faure modernized the thirsty, desperate, vampy archetype of Lila Dixon as a nervy, smart, ambitious talent.

The holiday spirit is all about giving, and this cast gave! And gave! And gave!

(Above: Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at Paper Mill Playhouse; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn” runs at Paper Mill Playhouse from November 21, 2018 through December 30, 2018. Tickets are available at the theater’s box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, New Jersey, or online.

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