An Old-Fashioned, Feel-Good ‘Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn’

The cast of 'Holiday Inn,' photo by Mark Kitaoka 'Holiday Inn,' 5th Avenue Theatre, photo by Mark Kitaoka

Smack in the middle of December, when we’re awash in Christmas Carols, Nutcrackers and office-sized batches of fudge, the central premise of the musical Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn doesn’t seem so preposterous: a Connecticut inn, open only on holidays, always offering guests high-energy, holiday-specific entertainment. Much like office sweets, this musical may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever consumed, but it’s still delicious, full of sugar and fat, comforting and familiar. It’s been a hard year. Eat the fudge.

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, an adaptation/update of the 1942 film Holiday Inn, opened on Broadway in 2016; the West Coast premiere runs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Dec. 31.

We open on a trio of performers of the old-time, song-and-dance variety: Jim Hardy (Eric Ankrim), Ted Hanover (Matt Owen) and Lila Dixon (Taryn Darr) have been hoofing their way through show business, trying to make it big. After the show, Jim proposes to Lila; he’s bought a farm in Connecticut and is ready for the simple life. Lila (who didn’t know about the farm, because why would Jim tell something like that to the woman he’s in love with?) isn’t ready quite yet—she sticks with Ted for a big gig in Chicago, Jim heads off to farmsville, and we’re off to the races.

This Holiday Inn is essentially a family-friendly, highbrow jukebox musical; the original film was also a musical, but adaptors Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge beefed it up with more Berlin songs from various shows and strung them together around an updated plot. Expect such gems as “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and, of course, the show’s raison d’etre, “White Christmas.” The plot is hilariously rife with old-timey show tropes: unlikely decision making, unsubstantiated love stories, unfunny spinster jokes.

That “spinster” is the rather young Linda Mason (Sarah Rose Davis), a schoolteacher and the former proprietor of Mason Farm; Jim bought it in foreclosure after her father died. Then there’s Louise (Lorna Luft), the farm’s go-to fix-it expert, and a talented ensemble cast who mostly play, well, an ensemble cast, show business friends of Jim’s who come up to put on these holiday shows and save the farm when it turns out Jim sucks at farming. There’s a love story, a break-up, a reunion, a Cinderella-esque talent search, a pushy agent, a big Hollywood break and—surprise!—a happy ending.

The show’s yuk-yuk comedy is almost comforting in its predictability, and while the directorial tone could stand a little more self-awareness, the high energy and sincerity with which the whole show is delivered more than makes up for it. Choreographer James A. Rocco, who also co-directed the show with David Armstrong, delivers exuberant chorus numbers—and a good thing, too, because the second act is basically one big holiday number after another, as we see the inn in action.

The smaller numbers don’t pack as much punch, but still have splendid moments. Owen has a truly outstanding tap number and the always-funny Darr, though criminally underutilized as Lila, still manages to give modern, aspirational dimension to a character written as self-serving and fame hungry (good for you, Lila! Don’t move to that farm!). Luft, whose acting style careens into the cartoonish, nevertheless brings a marvelous brassy voice to bear on numbers it seems made for. But for my money, Davis is the real vocal star of this show, her effortless soprano gliding through these Berlin tunes like silk on a river.

So here’s the moral of this holiday story: We’re not here to break any new ground or think any new thoughts, sing any new songs or dance any new dances. We’re here for some old-fashioned, feel-good musical theatre, and if that sounds like comfort food to you, then by all means, dig in.