A full house at 100 per cent capacity welcomed the holiday season at the Shaw Festival Theatre Saturday night.
Executive Director and CEO Tim Jennings could barely contain his excitement as he stepped from the wings and looked up at the packed house of masked theatre-goers awaiting the start of the classic Irving Berlin musical Holiday Inn.
The applause that greeted Jennings’ introductory remarks was almost as loud as that for the ensemble at the conclusion of the evening. It might have been due to the general anticipation for the show to start, but was also likely an expression of the sheer joy of being one of the 856 in attendance for what felt like a return to normal at Shaw after so many pandemic-affected months.
Jennings spoke of the 2019 run of the same musical, and indeed, some may have experienced a slight sense of deja vu upon attending Saturday’s opening night. After all, of the actors playing the four lead characters in Holiday Inn, only Vanessa Sears as Lila Dixon was not on the Shaw stage two years ago.
Kyle Blair and Kyle Golemba reprised their roles as Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover, characters originally played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the 1942 Hollywood version, while Kristi Frank once again embodied Linda Mason, the Midville, Connecticut school teacher who becomes the object of Hardy’s and Hanover’s affection. Many of the ensemble members from 2019 were also on the boards Saturday.
With Kate Hennig back in the director’s chair, the music direction of Paul Sportelli, set and costume design by Judith Bowden and Allison Plamondon’s choreography, it was inevitable that some in attendance would notice similarities between the 2019 and 2021 productions. But many who had been there two years ago remarked both during intermission and after the performance that there were enough fresh elements to make it feel brand new.
It was refreshing to watch a diverse ensemble cast sing and dance through the many recognizable Tin Pan Alley songs, as well as some newer tunes (Shaking the Blues Away, and Nothing More to Say) that were added for the 2014 revival. And instead of the stereotypical Black housekeeper Mamie, that character is replaced by the Jill-of-all-trades Louise, played by Gabrielle Jones to maximum comic effect.
As well, young Julia Thompson made her Shaw debut as the self-assured courier Charley Winslow, another character added for the musical version of Holiday Inn.
Blair as Jim Hardy has the meatiest role, of course. At a crossroads in his show business career, Jim buys a farm in Connecticut with the hopes of settling down with his sweetheart Lila, who opts instead to go on the road with Jim’s now-former song and dance partner, Ted.
Stuck on the failing Mason farm with “handyman” Louise, he tries to make it work. And as he fails at farming, he meets Linda Mason who, coincidentally, once had show business aspirations of her own.
After a visit from a group of his New York friends, Jim decides to convert the farm into the titular inn, with the idea of opening only during holidays to perform shows with Mason and an ensemble right on site.
Sitting at the piano, Blair and Franks perform a remarkable, moving duet on White Christmas. As the holiday season progresses, the ensemble celebrates New Year’s Eve with a festive gala, replete with a giant clock and balloons falling from the sky.
Golemba as Ted comes to visit that night, having drowned his sorrows in booze after Lila runs off with a Texas millionaire. His slapstick with the minute hand, bumping into dancer after dancer was a comedic highlight.
With other familiar songs, including Happy Holiday, Easter Parade and Cheek to Cheek, the music kept the audience enthralled, while the choreography during show-stopper numbers such as Shaking the Blues Away acted as reminders of exactly what can be accomplished with an expert ensemble and production team.
And Bowden’s costumes added to the show-stopping effect. The chorus girls in the turkey outfits have to be seen to be believed.
Another major highlight of the evening was Golemba’s turn in the spotlight for a dazzling display of tap dancing on the Independence Day-themed Let’s Say it With Firecrackers, reaching into his pocket to throw incendiary devices to the floor for explosive emphasis.
Golemba also shined during You’re Easy to Dance With, during which he displayed his expertise taking turns dancing in different styles with eight chorus girls.
Musically speaking, the Irving Berlin songbook is a perfect basis upon which to build a romantic jukebox musical, and the cast and crew of Holiday Inn have put together a rollickingly perfect performance of the well-known classic. It’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit.
Holiday Inn is on at the Shaw’s Festival Theatre until Dec. 23. Visit shawfest.com for information and tickets.