Stage Door Review
Sunday, November 21, 2021
music by Irving Berlin, directed by Kate Hennig
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
November 23-December 22, 2019;
November 20-December 23, 2021
Jim: ”Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right”
The Shaw Festival’s winter production of Holiday Inn is the Festival’s all-round best production on its main stage since My Fair Lady in 2011. This is the first time the Festival has presented what is primarily a dance musical and it succeeds in every way. It has an ideal cast, attractive design, skillful direction and above all two hours of glorious choreography including frequent high-energy tap numbers. This is the perfect show to put you into a celebratory mood.
Most people will know the story of Holiday Inn from the beloved 1942 film of the same name starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. One song from the film, “White Christmas”, became such a hit that Paramount Pictures built another Astaire-Crosby movie around it in 1954. Holiday Inn was not made into a stage musical until 2014, using songs by Irving Berlin from the original film along with other Berlin hits. Book writers Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge keep the general outline of the film but flesh out the characters and increase the number of musical interludes.
For those who don’t know the story, it concerns two friends – singer Jim Hardy (Kyle Blair) and dancer Ted Hannover (Kyle Golemba) – and how their different goals in life, along with Ted's propensity of hitting on Jim’s girlfriends, threaten their friendship. Jim wants to give up show business, marry dancer Lila Dixon (Kimberley Rampersad)* and move together to Connecticut to run a farm and live a simpler life. Unluckily for Jim, his agent Danny Reed (Jay Turvey) has just swung a deal for Jim, Lila and Ted to go on tour. Jim refuses to go leaving Lila to choose between a quiet married life and the excitement of showbiz. She chooses the latter, travelling with Ted, but still considering herself engaged to Jim.
Jim takes over the Mason farm which comes with its resident handy-woman Louise Badger (Jenny L. Wright). Early on Jim meets Linda Mason (Kristi Frank), daughter of the former own of the farm, who was briefly in show business until she gave it up to care for her ailing father until his death. She’s now a school teacher who attempts to hide her loneliness from everyone.
It turns out that buying the farm has put Jim deeply in debt and following the ancient movie musical cliché he, Linda and Louise find the solution in putting on a show. That plan in turn changes into making the Mason farm into a Holiday Inn that offers lodging and shows only during the holidays (when the musicians and performers are available). Ted turns up alone since Lila has gone off with a Texas millionaire so Ted could become the show’s biggest draw. All might go well except that Ted finds that Linda would be perfect as his new dance partner.
Judith Bowden’s design for the show is attractive and clever. Inside the Festival Theatre proscenium she has created another proscenium of white wooden boards as if for a Victorian house. The top of this wooden proscenium is decorated with a beaded wooden spandrel as is the top of the drop sometimes used behind it. The corners of the wooden proscenium are filled in with curved decorative verandah brackets in between which is a bargeboard of looped running trim. Equally spaced on the edge of the brackets and the loops on the bargeboard are round lightbulbs. When off they look like balls that are part of the decoration. When turned on they look like cabaret stage lights.Thus the set can easily represent a metropolitan theatre, the Mason farm or the theatre in the Mason farm depending on whether the lights are lit or not and how Kevin Lamotte has lit the stage floor.
The key advantage of placing all the decoration around the stage opening is that leaves the full stage floor free and unconstrained for choreographer Allison Plamondon’s massive dance numbers. Set elements may be pushed on or off to represent different locations, but the main feeling the set conveys is spaciousness within a New England location.
Director Kate Hennig does not look at the show’s slender plot-line and leave it at that. Instead, she demands that the performers find the conflicts that do exist within the characters and to emphasize that complexity in their acting. As a result all of the main characters feel much richer and more fully rounded that is usually the case in a dance-centred musical.
Kyle Blair and Kyle Golemba are such equally matched triple-threats that is seems a bit artificial that Blair is labelled as the “singer” Jim and Golemba as the “dancer” Ted. This is the first time that the two Kyles, partners in real life, have starred opposite each other, and they bring out an important aspect of the show that often goes missing in other productions, namely that the friendship between Jim and Ted is as important as the growing affection between Jim and Linda. Slight as the plot-line is, it is the tension between friendship with each other and romantic interest in their dance partners that gives the show what little tension and complexity it has.
Blair, who has proven himself a fantastic tap-dancer many times before, as in 42nd Street at Stratford in 2012, has the chance here to highlight his singing. He gives fine renditions of such standards as “Blue Skies“ and sings lesser-known songs like “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” with great sensitivity. He is also more deeply into his character than some Jims I’ve seen and makes it quite believable that his character has a philosophical bent that has made him fed up with the superficiality of showbiz and eager to focus on what is more essential in life.
Golemba, who has proven himself a fine singer before as in the Grand Theatre’s Cinderella in 2011, has the chance here to highlight his dancing. He gets to dance individually and in all the ballroom styles with all the female chorus members in “You’re Easy to Dance With” as he searches for the woman he thinks is his perfect partner (it’s Linda Mason). And he has a great solo dance number to for Independence Day in “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” where he precisely punctuates his tap dancing by throwing down bang snaps to create small explosions all around him. He shows what a fine actor he is in a great scene in Act 2 when Ted is drunk and messily disrupts a show in progress at the Inn. Golemba has never had to carry so much weight in a Shaw Festival show before and his performance demonstrates that he is more than able for the task.
As Linda Mason, Kristi Frank gives one of her best-ever performances. She conveys Linda’s shyness and accommodation to defeat as well as hinting that the spark of adventure has not totally died out in her. In dancing she easily keeps up with the two Kyles and her operetta-like voice and Berlin’s classic songs are a perfect fit. Especially lovely is the wistful “Nothing More to Say“.
Kimberley Rampersad is a sexy, driven Lila Dixon who is particularly seductive in her number “Heat Wave”. Her Linda is so haughty and self-obsessed we do wonder how a thoughtful guy like Jim could have fallen for her except that Rampersad has Lila radiate such irresistible allure.
The polar opposite of Lila as Louise, the Mason Farm’s resident housekeeper and fix-it gal. Jenny L. Wright delivers Louise frequent wry remarks with just the right level of dry wit. As people will know from other shows, Wright can sing too and pulls off her big number “Shaking the Blues Away” with panache.
The character of the bank messenger person Charlie Winslow also deserves mention. Clara Poppy Kushnir and William Wagner alternate in the role. I happened to see Kushnir and she had all the poise and pluck the role of the little wiseacre requires.
While Holiday Inn is a showcase for the multiple talents of its leads, it is so dance-heavy that to take off it really requires a choreographer with an endless supply of ideas. That is exactly what Allison Plamondon has along with the knowledge of how to gradate the difficulty of the steps within tap numbers as well as how to shape the sequence of dance numbers to a climax so that we feel elated rather than exhausted by the sight of so much energetic dancing.
With their ideal cast Hennig and Plamondon have created a show that is marvellous to watch and captivating to listen to. Had I not seen it so late in its run, I would certainly have seen it again. When Jim sings, “Blue skies smiling at me” you feel they are smiling at you too.
*In the 2021 production Kyle Blair, Kristi Frank, Kyle Golemba and Jay Turvey return as Jim, Linda, Ted and Danny. Gabrielle Jones takes over the role of Louise and Vanessa Sears takes over the role of Lila. Charley is played by Wren Evans and Julia Thompson.
Photos: (from top) Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy, Kristi Frank as Linda Mason and Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover; Kimberley Rampersad as Lila Dixon and Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover; Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy and Jenny L. Wright as Louise with the ensemble; Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy and Kristi Frank as Linda Mason. © 2019 Emily Cooper.
For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.