There is a fog surrounding the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. As in a literal fog. In fact, there is so much dry ice being pumped onto the stage that it appears to be socked in. The stagecraft at work might create more depth and contrast for lighting and color. But the real impact of all this haze is to obscure the audience’s perception of the play’s paper-thin story; and to keep them happy in the dreamlike miasma of nostalgia.
And yet, who would argue with Irving Berlin? The music of Holiday Inn is iconic. Songs like “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” are part of our American musical blood supply. These are delightful songs, done delightfully. Nicholas Rodriguez (Jim Hardy) croons so well, you might convince yourself you’re actually watching Bing Crosby in the movie version — as long as the fog holds out. And Jeff Kready (Ted Hanover) might hoof almost as well as Fred Astaire, mostly because you have a vague memory of a dance he did with firecrackers. Halyey Podshun (Linda Mason) and Paige Faure (Lila Dixon) as the female leads are convincing enough – if a bit stiff and lacking in charm. But none of these actors are meant to carry the show. It’s the memory of Irving Berlin being sung by Bing and Fred that give Holiday Inn a beating heart.
If the vocal and dance performances in Holiday Inn are just good enough to keep you interested from one number to the next, it’s the costumes and sets that give this production the better-than-watching-the-TCM-version thumb’s up. The gowns alone are worth the price of admission, to say nothing of the mile-high bonnets. Whole tableaux of pastels, shimmery greens, and even the show-stopping satin pilgrim and turkey costumes make you pine for the opulent floor shows that most of us have never even seen. Except, of course, in old movies.
So what if the story is almost nonsensical? It’s about the struggle of doing what you love —if doing what you love is buying a farm in Connecticut to escape inevitable stardom, and nearly ruining yourself through a series of uninformed decisions and odd relationship choices that don’t make any sense at all … until you can sing about them. Perhaps the most charming aspect of the turn-on-a-dime plot is when, very earnestly, a group of enthusiastic choristers announce in the face of destruction, “What if show business could be the solution?” And voila. You suddenly realize this is the quintessential fantasy of all people in theater, and – apparently – Irving Berlin himself. And, who could argue with Irving Berlin?
Although this may come off as a spoiler, Holiday Inn isn’t a Christmas show. It could just as easily be a Fourth of July show. Or an Easter show. It won’t leave you with warm feelings about the holidays like some other more traditional Christmas offerings (yet it’s no less shameless in its attempt to put you in the holiday theater seat). Shows like this are designed to lure you; to make you want to put on your velvet outfit, and spend the rare evening watching a live performance. In that way, Holiday Inn has a lot in common with A Christmas Carol, or The Nutcracker: “Shaking the Blues Away” is both the Fezziwig Ball and the Stahlbaum Holiday Party. It is the moment when reality recedes, and anything is possible. Even a bunch of actors running a successful farm-turned-theater that only does shows about holidays.
All of this beautiful illusion is meant to help you conjure up something that you believe once was. And the magic of theater — and this production, in particular — is that to make you believe in something that once was, you have to believe that it ever existed in the first place. And that takes a lot of fog.