Those of us who share the rather unusual- and sometimes bizarre-profession of reviewing films for a living all share a nasty little secret: there are countless classic movies that we haven't seen. I'm not alone in making this mea culpa. No less than the late, great Robert Osborne, whose insightful introductions on Turner Classic Movies helped launch that channel's success, once confided in me that even he could list numerous classic movies that he had yet to catch up with. When he confessed this to Lauren Bacall, she told him that she envied him because she wish she could recapture the sheer joy of seeing a great film for the first time. I've never seen the 1942 musical "Holiday Inn". I can't say why but perhaps it's because that as a boy growing up in the Sixties, such productions seemed quaint and unappealing when I had a celluloid tidal wave of WWII flicks, Westerns and Bond-inspired spy movies. After all, John Wayne and Steve McQueen never danced on film, so why bother watching anyone else do so? Thus, when I attended the Papermill Playhouse's stage production of the much-beloved Irving Berlin song fest, I was in the unique position of not being acquainted with the property at all. At the risk of invoking the names of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, to be sure. However, the Papermill has outdone itself in presenting the ultimate "feel good" production for the holiday season.
The story is as sappy and sentimental as I suspected when I was a kid, but with the passing of decades, I've warmed to sappy and sentimental musicals and "Holiday Inn" turns the old concept of "Hey, kids- we can put the show on in the barn!" into a slight variation that boils down to "Hey, kids- we can put the show on right here at the inn!". The story opens with a song and dance trio just finishing a successful engagement. They are Jim Hardy (Nicholas Rodriguez), his girlfriend and dance partner Lila Dixon (Paige Faure) and Ted Hanover (Jeff Kready). Backstage, Jim drops a bombshell by proposing to Lila and announcing that they can now leave show business and move to a farm he has just purchased sight unseen in rural Connecticut. Although Lila accepts the marriage proposal, she says she wants to continue the act on the road for another six months with Ted while Jim prepares the farm for her to move in following their marriage. Jim agrees but when he gets to the historic Mason Farm that he has purchased, he discovers he's been snookered. The place is run down and he is immediately served with demands to pay back taxes and assorted other staggering debts he didn't know existed. While he struggles to cope, he is visited by Linda Mason (Hayley Podschun), the previous owner the farm, which had been in her family for generations. Seems Linda couldn't afford the upkeep and had been evicted, thus allowing Jim to secure the place while in foreclosure. In a coincidence that only occurs in musicals of this type, she is attractive and has a talent for performing on stage, though she gave up her career to become a teacher when sufficient opportunities didn't appear for her to make a living in show business. Jim imposes on her to sing a bit and he recognizes she has star power. Meanwhile, Lila makes a surprise visit and confesses she is so caught up in her own thriving career that she is calling off the marriage and going back on the road with Ted. You don't have to be the kind of person who wears a deerstalker hat and smokes a pipe to detect what happens next: Jim falls head over heels for Linda and they devise a plan to transform the failing farm into a hotel that presents musical productions. The plan proves to be an immediate success, drawing crowds from far and wide but things unravel when Ted turns up and announces that Lila has kicked him to the curb and broken up their act when a millionaire proposed to her. Desperate to jump start his career, Ted worms his way into the inn's revue, in the process falling for Linda, who is clearly smitten by Ted's talents as well as he egotistical self-assurance which is in contrast to Jim's modest nature.
The well-oiled plot device of a city slicker finding himself hapless as a farmer must date back to the invention of celluloid but it persists because it's a genuinely funny one, as evidenced by films such as "The Egg and I", "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", "The Money Pit" and the still amusing "Green Acres" 1960s TV series. The fish-out-water concept provides some genuine laughs but it is the wealth of Berlin songs that elevate "Holiday Inn" to a special status. Just consider all of these classic numbers in one show: "Heat Wave", "Blue Skies", "Happy Holiday", "Cheek to Cheek", "Easter Parade" and a little number called "White Christmas" that might actually catch on. All of them are superbly performed by a flawless and talented cast under the outstanding musical direction of Shawn Gough with equally impressive choreography by Denis Jones. Gordon Greenberg is the director of the overall production which practically had the enthusiastic audience dancing in the aisles. Kudos to costume designer Alejo Vietti for providing some eye-popping creations and especially to scene designer Anna Louizos, whose creative sets are not only impressive but are miraculously changed literally in the blink of an eye without the slightest interruption. The four leads in the show illustrate the Papermill's painstaking casting process pays off. Rodriguez, Podschun, Kready and Faure are delightful to watch throughout. Each of them has the ability to knock 'em dead during the musical numbers but they also deliver the witty bon mots in a style that ensures big laughs. There is also a spot-on supporting performance by Ann Harada as a local handywoman who finds plenty of work repairing Jim's dilapidated inn. The book has been tweaked a slight bit to make the dialogue more relevant for today's audiences but there are some quaint references to Connecticut as a dull, largely rural state, which gets big laughs from tri-state audiences who have suffered the endless traffic jams on the I-95 corridor.The film version was released in 1942 during the early days of WWII, which accounts for the sentimental success of "White Christmas", but for reasons unknown, the stage production takes place in 1946. A notorious blackface musical number in praise of Abraham Lincoln that appeared in the film has also been mercifully left out of the stage production.
The Papermill's presentation of "Holiday Inn" illustrates why the venue is the gold standard of regional playhouses. The show delighted the audience so much that even the rude nitwits that generally walk out before the show ends in order to get a head start on reaching the parking lot seemed transfixed by all the talent on stage and remained to join in the roaring standing ovation. It's the perfect holiday show and runs through December 30. Don't miss it.