In the midst of Philly’s Fringe mania, comes a touch of nostalgia in the form of Walnut Street Theatre’s production of IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN. Though it was developed in recent years, the show is a throwback to an era of musical comedy, where characters can burst into song just because, and everyone else joins in just because they can, sometimes including the audience.
This is what Walnut Street Theatre does so well—create a feel good musical experience that lets the audience leave the theater humming. The story, about a performer who only wants to live quietly on a farm with the girl he loves, deals with issues like betrayal and alcoholism and foreclosure with a smile, and doesn’t care to look too deeply into the characters’ lives and motives. It has production numbers, including a jump rope dance, that has the audience cheering, and it makes one long for a kinder, gentler time when a rivalry between a singer and a dancer seemed to matter.
Based on a 1942 film of the same name, this version of Holiday Inn seems to be a paean to a simpler way of life. But knowing that the original film was in production when Pearl Harbor was bombed means that nothing is ever that simple. As Jim (Ben Dibble) finds out, when farming turns out to be ever so much harder than he imagined, life can be difficult, best friends can be devious, and falling in love doesn’t always mean a happily ever after.
Dibble’s Jim Hardy, a performer who falls in love with every girl he meets, and who longs for that imagined simple life on a farm, radiates goodness and talent and fills the stage with his voice and his presence. Philly favorite Mary Martello, who plays Louise, an overinvolved farmhand, carries the comedic aspects through rousing song and dance and good humor. Ted’s love interest, Linda (Cary Michele Miller), is all spunk and verve, with a voice that was occasionally a tinge too brassy, while the part of Ted Hanover (Jacob Tischler), is so underwritten, that though we can admire his dancing, it’s hard to see why he’s able to steal away Jim’s girlfriends.
Some of the show’s problems come from the script itself. Conceived as a vehicle for creating a song for each holiday, a few of which, like White Christmas and Easter Parade, are still classics, the show nevertheless takes a long time to find its way. Two story lines, saving the farm and getting the girl, vie for center stage, even though the happy ending is never in doubt. The set (designed by Robert Andrew Kovach) shifts from night club to farmhouse as easily as the company of dancers fill out their many roles.
Despite a few drawbacks, this production of IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN is an enjoyable way to spend an evening watching some very able young singers and dancers show just how talented they are.
[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] September 4-October 21, 2018; walnutstreettheatre.org