Through the year(s) with Irv­ing Berlin

Irv­ing Berlin’s Hol­i­day Inn’ in Connecticut

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Irving Berlin conceived Holiday Inn as a live stage show (with a different title), so the concept of adapting it as a musical for the stage seems natural.

On February 16, 1939, Berlin sent a letter to his lawyer: “Happy Holiday by Irving Berlin. This is a first rough draft for a review. The important holidays in a year will be shown in rotation.” In April 1941, Berlin met film director Mark Sandrich: “I told him about my idea of a musical revue based on holidays and he thought it would make a perfect movie for Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.” So the idea turned into a film, and a plot was constructed about a singer who retired and bought a farm in New England, and, finding it tough going, hit on the idea of turning the farm into an inn that would only be open on holidays.

This became one of the most popular movies of 1942, and two of the songs written for it — “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (for Valentine’s Day) and “White Christmas” — were big hits. Crosby’s recording of the latter became the best-selling single record of all time, and a 1954 movie was centered on that song and borrowed a bit of its plot (plus the set) from Holiday Inn.

This production of Holiday Inn shouldn’t be confused with Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which came to Broadway in 2008. White Christmas is about the love of World War II veterans for their commander; Holiday Inn is about two guys competing for the love of the same girl. If you get the opportunity to buy a ticket to one or the other, Holiday Inn is the better show. (I liked White Christmas, but not as much as this new show.)

The perfect locale

The Goodspeed Opera House, located in a small Connecticut town, is the perfect locale for the story, and the staff at Goodspeed is experienced with classic musicals. While the jewel box stage is not the same scale as a Broadway house, the production levels are. Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge have beefed up the plot and written a new script, which Greenberg directs.

Tally Sessions and Noah Racey assume the roles originally played by Crosby and Astaire. Sessions is amiable and likeable, while Racey is self-centered and brash. His character is the piece’s bad guy, but we can’t help being intrigued by him. Women will feel that they’d never marry this guy but certainly would want to spend a night with him.

The new script makes the female roles stronger. Patti Murin plays the former owner of the Connecticut property, an independent woman who is courted by both of the leading men. Relationships become provocative because she is interested in a career while her loved one wants to retire. (That’s a conundrum that many non-showbiz folks also face, so it's eminently relatable.) Susan Mosher provides laughs as the inn’s wisecracking handywoman, Danny Rutigliano is a comically pugnacious agent, and Hayley Podschun is the ditzy former partner of the song-and-dance team.

Finding treasures in the trunk

Berlin had listed potential song titles for his original stage review — including “I Pledge Allegiance to My Flag,” “The Wedding of Capital and Labor,” “If Columbus Came Back Today,” and “We Fought the War to End All Wars” — but composed none of them. As is usual with movies, the original Holiday Inn didn’t have enough songs to fill a two-act stage show, so Greenberg and Hodge searched the Berlin trunk for additional compositions to fill out the evening.

“Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk,” from the 1949 Berlin show Miss Liberty, provides a nice love duet. “Heat Wave” (introduced in his 1933 musical As Thousands Cheer) relates to the summertime, if not to a specific holiday. “Blue Skies” (written by Berlin in 1926) demonstrates the optimism of the innkeeper, while “What’ll I Do?” (written for Berlin’s 1923 Music Box Revue) is a poignant love song.

Murin also introduces a little-known Berlin creation, “Love Leads to Marriage / that leads to divorce / that leads to lawyers / Expensive, of course,” which was an uncharacteristic curiosity. Berlin wrote it in 1956 for a never-produced musical, The Legendary Mizners, a subject Stephen Sondheim addressed in his Wise Guys.

Celebrate with song

But the soul of Holiday Inn is the array of holiday-specific songs from the original movie. These include “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “Song of Freedom” for Racey’s Fourth of July tap dance with firecrackers. “Let’s Start the New Year Right” sizzled with streamers and balloons. All of the scenes that commemorated holidays at the inn featured spectacular hoofing, choreographed by Denis Jones.

Greenberg’s direction made innovative use of Goodspeed’s tiny stage and cleverly reached out into the aisles to envelop the audience in the festivities.

While I was happy to hear this wide array of Berlin songs, I must reluctantly point out that there’s not enough impact when you hear an unfamiliar song once and then no more. Berlin knew, better than anyone, that a song has better chance to become a hit when it’s reprised repeatedly in the show. In other words, better to trim the song list a bit and repeat some of the songs, as this show successfully does with a couple of the tunes. Would that there was time for more of that.

You can see a video with highlights from the show here.

What, When, Where

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. New book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge. Gordon Greenberg directed. World premiere through December 28, 2014 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. 860-873-8668 or www.goodspeed.org.

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