THE BASICS: HOLIDAY INN, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, adapted from the 1942 feel good Universal Pictures movie, directed by the marvelous Kate Hennig, at the Shaw Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON runs on select days through December 22. (905-468-2172 / 1-800-511-7429) www.shawfest.com Runtime: 2 hours, 25 minutes including one intermission (gourmet “snack bar” and full service bar in lobby) Note: A CHRISTMAS CAROL also continues at the nearby Royal George Theatre.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Three years ago, The Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director Tim Carroll introduced the idea of a holiday show. It was a wildly inventive A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2017 review here) with puppets and staging imported from Norway, and with added special Shawfest staging magic. CAROL continues this December at the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre in the heart of quaint, very Christmassy Niagara-on-the-Lake. And now, for the first time ever, the Shaw Festival has a holiday show on the main Festival Theatre stage, so they have, as Carroll writes, a “Holiday Season.” The new addition is not exactly a Christmas show, as HOLIDAY INN has songs covering most of the major holidays, but if you’ve already seen A CHRISTMAS CAROL then by all means take it INN.
In a nutshell, Jim, Ted, and Lila are “an act” – hoofin’ and singin’ – but Jim wants out of show biz. He buys a farm in Connecticut where he can settle down with Lila (Kimberley Rampersad) and do an honest day’s work. But agriculture is not Lila’s strong suit, and, like Ted, she just can’t leave the stage before getting her big break. Enter Linda (Kristi Frank), the local schoolteacher, who grew up on the farm that Jim bought. Of course, she is not only attracted to Jim (and vice versa) but, would you believe it? She used to be a singer and dancer. What are the odds? And so, after a number of misadventures, Jim, along with his trusty “handyman” Lou, who is actually Louise, turns the farmhouse into an inn with a stage (really, I’m not making this up) which will, in order not to conflict with their showbiz friends’ schedules, only put on shows during the holidays – a Holiday Inn (and yes, that’s where the famous hotel chain got its name).
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Is it fun? Yes, of course, with two romantic star-crossed couples and a 14-person chorus line/ensemble, great sets and even greater lighting tricks. Since the first stage version back in 2014 there have been a number of choreographers dipping their toes in the water, with the latest, Allison Plamondon adding her talents to the current run. And my gosh there’s a lot of dancing. Remember that the original movie starred Fred Astaire, and so right from the start, the two male leads – Jim and Ted – have a bit of a “dancing vs. singing” contest calling for Jim to be the better singer (Actor Kyle Blair does have a phenomenal tenor) and Ted the better dancer. Kyle Golemba, who plays Ted, has some pretty smooth moves. Golemba thinks his talent was pre-ordained, since he shares a birthday with Fred Astaire.
The show is chock-a-block with great Irving Berlin songs…
And the show is chock-a-block with great Irving Berlin songs including “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade” and… “White Christmas!” Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin in Russia in 1888) was described by George Gershwin as “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.” And, as Jerome Kern said: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”
The direction by the multi-talented Kate Hennig is, as expected, very sure, the verbal jokes land well, and the physical comedy works, especially with Jenny L. Wright as the gruff handyman with a heart of gold. Very funny.
This show has the feeling of a jukebox musical, in that the songs are better than the plot that was arranged to showcase them. But, who cares about plot, when at the end of the day, in 1942 this movie-musical was designed to lift spirits in the shadow of World War II. And, in our times of turmoil, it still is a very welcome 2-1/2-hour diversion.
Some of the sets (Judith Bowden) are good but others are great, and with Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, they absolutely pop! The costumes, especially when all lit up, are one of those special Shaw touches that audiences expect, and you won’t be disappointed there.
… this show should become a holiday tradition.
However, as has been mentioned here and elsewhere, there’s Broadway, and then there’s the Shawfest, where the musicals are good, but lack that special pizzazz, that certain je-ne-sais-quoi, that snap, that razzle-dazzle that only 100% dedicated Broadway performers can consistently deliver. However, with ticket prices at about 1/3 of Broadway shows, not to mention it’s only an hour away up a beautiful parkway, this show should become a holiday tradition. I would make a real effort to attend.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!