Holiday Inn, as Irving Berlin envisioned it back in ’41, was a place showfolk could go on their holidays off to do a show. He even provided a musical menu they could knock themselves out over, including his lone Oscar winner, “White Christmas.”
This quaint conceit in his film, Holiday Inn, also earned him his only nonmusical Oscar nomination—for Best Original Story of 1942. That has been updated safely out of the World War II zone to 1946 by Chad Hodge and director Gordon Greenberg and saturated in Berlin standards for the same-named stage musical that checked into Studio 54 on October 6.
It’s a Yule log of 20 evergreens, four reprises and one song having a very tardy (like, 68 years) world premiere: “Nothing More To Say.” According to Ted Chapin of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization that handles Berlin’s musical empire, “It was written for Stars on My Shoulder, a 1948 musical that never saw the light of day. The idea of the plot—a President returning to civilian life—morphed into Mr. President.”
Holiday Inn is about a guy with showbiz battle-fatigue buying a Connecticut farm and taking up the bucolic life. Wrong call, but the farm comes with a barn, and, as all who have been through Mickey & Judy 101 knows, if there’s a barn, there’s a show.
It takes most of Act I for the farmer/singer to figure this out, between things like “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Blue Skies” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” Act II gets down to the business of saluting the holidays: “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” for the Fourth of July, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” for Valentine’s Day, “Easter Parade” for Bunny Day.
It falls heavily to Bryce Pinkham to follow Bing Crosby’s classic crooning of “White Christmas,” and, yes, he finds it a tad intimidating. “It’s certainly feels like a tall order, I won’t lie to you,” he acknowledges, “but I enjoy it, and I’m honored I get to do it. Who wouldn’t want to sing ‘White Christmas’ on Broadway in December? I’m so excited about that. At this point, I just try to relax and enjoy whatever happens.
“I’m certainly doing an homage to that classic style of singing. I don’t think I could ever pull off a perfect Bing Crosby impression because we have different voices.
“There’s some early-on scatting in the show. That’s intentional there to sorta fall back to Bing. But, early on, they had me doing some of Bing’s riffs, and I can’t sing ‘em like Bing, so I finally said, ‘Guys, we gotta do something where I can sing like me because I’m never going to sing it as well as Bing did. Let’s sing it my way.’”
Not only does Pinkham sing, dance and act, he also juggles—not long , but enough to show you he knows what he’s doing. “I’ve been juggling since college. I had to learn it for a Moliere piece, and I’ve kept it ever since because it’s one of my favorite things to do that reminds me of my days as an athlete. I try to bring it to every performance. It’s risky. I enjoy doing something risky on stage. Thankfully, it works.”
Corbin Bleu has some pretty big tap-shoes to fill as well—like, Fred Astaire’s—playing the dancing half of Pinkham’s act. “He’s the man. I always looked up to him, and getting the chance to play a character he played is a dream come true for me.”
He dances up a storm throughout—courtesy of Denis Jones’ often-thrilling choreography—but goes into high-adrenaline overdrive with a spectacular tap-crackle-and-pop fireworks number. “It’s the number I have the most fun doing, but it’s a beast of a number,” he admits. “It’s very, very long, and it makes you very winded, but there’s something so magical about it. It’s just a pure piece of theatre.”
“Cheek to Cheek” is his sentimental favorite. He danced it with his mother at his wedding two months ago before rehearsals started and he found out he’d be doing the number in the show. “I can’t wait for her to see it. She’s very excited for me.” The new Mrs. Bleu, Sasha Clements, struck out for the after-party at the Hard Rock Café while he and the rest of the cast ran the press gauntlet in the lobby of Studio 54.
The storyline has Pinkham and Bleu, between songs, forever scrapping like puppies over the same girlfriend. Lora Lee Gayer, as a Connecticut schoolmarm Pinkham takes a shine to, is the latest in that line, and she plays and sings the part prettily.
Her brunette hair also gives a nice performance, making her look a lot like Jeanne Crain as she was in the period of the show. “The wig was designed by Chuck LoPointe, but Todd Barnes who does my wig every day was so concerned about how my wig looked on opening night, so that’s going to have to be quoted. Put that in.”
So far, the stage-door world does’t know she’s a natural blonde. “I love my wigs,” she confesses, “but every show I’ve ever done I’ve never had my natural hair color, and no one ever recognizes me. I come out and people say, ‘Oh, were you in the show?’”
A pair of Megans lend key comic support. Megan Sikora is a mutual showgirlfriend shared by Pinkham and Bleu and does a torrid “Heat Wave” that may remind you of Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of it in There’s No Business Like Show Business. “It’s super fun. I change costumes three times. You don’t even know how it happens.”
Megan Lawrence, a Tony-nominated Gladys in the last Pajama Game, carries the show’s comedic load, multi-tasking as Pinkham’s madcap maid, matchmaker and Little Miss Fix-It a la Mary Wickes. Plus, she shows up in a choice slot in the big production numbers and shines in an extravagant skip-rope rendition of “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” which did just that and brought the house down on opening night.
“People seem to like it,” she understates, “but it’s a great song. The choreography, I think, is amazing. It’s a story song. There are lots of different parts that make up the number. I like that it goes through different categories throughout the evening. By the time you watch it, lots of things have happened, and, by the end, it’s a great ride.”
Another Tony-nominated musical-comedy performer (one of the mobster mugs who brushed up his Shakespeare in Kiss Me Kate), Lee Wilkof never lifts his voice in song once here, but screeches stridently as a short-circuiting agent. His consolation prize: He got the evening’s biggest laugh, trying to head Pinkham off at the Connecticut pass with this dire warning about staid country life: “You know what happens in Connecticut? Nothing. You’ll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings.”
Writer-director Greenberg is making his Broadway debut—as a writer-director. “My first Broadway show was when I was 12,” he says. “I played Michael York as a kid in a show that famously never opened, The Little Prince and the Aviator. Which is why tonight is so gratifying: we actually opened. Eventually I did Grease and How To Succeed as an actor, but coming back on this side of the table is enormously rewarding. I’ve been doing this in London and Chicago and other cities, but to do it right here at home is certainly a lot easier because I get to sleep in my own bed.”
Greenberg has toiled over Holiday Inn almost three years. “The show, to me, is a joy machine, and it is very finely tuned.” He insists that no pun was intended with that, but it’s not inaccurate. “We’ve been spending last month looking at every moment, trying to make sure it’s polished and sharp and functioning at its full capacity.”
He saw the movie only once at the outset when he took on the project. “I walked away and tried to retain the things that I thought resonated and the things that were beloved—to translate them, to reimagine them in a way that would appeal to people now in 2016, in a way that would feel silly and confectionary as the original film.”
Holiday Inn was one of Paramount’s peak pictures, but you’d not suspect it from this musical which is co-produced by Universal Stage Productions and Roundabout Theatre Company. It was not a Universal Picture, of course—it was a Universal acquisition, made when Paramount sold all of its pre-1949 catalogue to Universal. That’s how, and why, the characters here wind up on Stage 16 of Universal’s backlot.
The opening-night guest list was a clear case of preaching to the converted. Everybody seemed to have their finger is some musical pie: Linda Louise Emmet, the second of Berlin’s three daughters who seemed very pleased with what was done with Daddy’s ditties; Rachel York, a Disaster! survivor now workshopping Little Dancer; Walter Bobbie, director of Broadway’s longest-running revival, Chicago; Laura Osnes, who’s not sure how her incoming Bandstand stands; Andy Karl, bound for Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre in April forGroundhog Day; director Michael Greif, who could have two musicals on Broadway by season’s end (Dear Evan Hanson and War Paint); lyricist Richard Maltby, who will have a musical in Toronto in March called Sousatzka, based on the Shirley MacLaine film and starring Victoria Clark; Douglas Sills, an ex-Scarlet Pimpernel; Douglas Hodge, a Tony-winning Albin in La Cage aux Folles; Christopher Wheeldon, director-choreographer of An American in Paris; Jessica Molaskey of Sunday in the Park with George and hubby John Pizzarelli, a Café Carlyle couple starting November 26; John Weidman, author of Pacific Overtures and Contact; Jane Krakowski of Nine and She Loves Me; Megan Hilty from Nine to Five, and Jeffrey Seller, producer of something called Hamilton.