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Retooled ‘Holiday Inn’ oozes fresh sensibilities amid familiar Berlin tunes

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Michael Mahler in a scene from the Marriott Theatre production of "Holiday Inn." | Liz Lauren

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Michael Mahler in a scene from the Marriott Theatre production of "Holiday Inn." | Liz Lauren

Before you ask, yes, they’ve cut the Lincoln’s Birthday song.

For those unfamiliar with the classic Christmas film “Holiday Inn,” this wildly offensive scene features Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds and many other actors done up in full black face for the musical number “Abraham.” The first order of business for any modern version of the film (or the stage) would be chucking that scene in the trash, then setting the trash can on fire and launching it into space.

Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that writers Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge left “Abraham” on the cutting room floor when adapting “Holiday Inn” for the stage. But I mention it because the decision is entirely of a piece with the sterling renovation they’ve done on the film’s creaky, outdated script: There’s more here than just cutting out the racism and pasting in a few extra Irving Berlin songs. It’s an architectural makeover worthy of HGTV.

‘Holiday Inn’
★★★
When: Through Jan. 6
Where: Marriott Lincolnshire, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $60
Info: MarriottTheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission

It’s therefore true that audience members who arrive at the Marriott Theatre expecting a faithful recreation of the film might be a little disappointed — but they won’t be for long. Under the direction of Denis Jones (whose recently helmed the Broadway-bound “Tootsie”) this regional premiere of “Holiday Inn” demonstrates how old-fashioned stories can benefit from more modern sensibilities. And that doesn’t just mean making the thing less problematic; it means making the characters feel like real human beings. Whereas the movie mostly coasts along on Berlin’s songbook and the twinned starpower of Crosby and Fred Astaire, this “Holiday Inn” aims to tell an actual story.

The film’s major signposts are all there, but the routes the play takes between them are far different — and far better. Singer songwriter Jim Hardy (Michael Mahler) still leaves his partner and best friend, hoofer Ted Hanover (Will Burton), in order to start a farm in Connecticut. And after that idea goes bust, Jim still hits upon the (wildly infeasible) idea of turning the farm into a showbiz inn that’s only open on holidays. Jim’s fiancee, the singer Lila Dixon (Kimberly Immanuel), is still in the mix, and after she leaves him to stick with Ted, Jim still ends up with the wonderful Linda Mason (Johanna McKenzie Miller). And, yes, once Lila leaves Ted as well, he and Jim start battling over Linda, with Ted offering her Hollywood stardom and Jim asking her to remain with him romantically and as a part of his (really truly comically ill-advised) business venture.

But the main problem with the film, you see, is that the main characters are all terrifying sociopaths. Romantic tug-o-wars between Jim and Ted, first over Lila then over Linda, leave so few emotional wounds upon the four of them that you start to believe these people aren’t capable of human emotion.

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is presenting "Holiday Inn" through Jan. 6, 2019. | Liz Lauren

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is presenting “Holiday Inn” through Jan. 6, 2019. | Liz Lauren

This stage version, on the other hand, nails the romantic angle by limiting itself to one romance and one romance only, thank you. Ted is no longer trying to steal and then marry Jim’s girlfriend, he’s just trying to get a new dance partner. And Linda, too, is no longer an ambitious singer, but is now an ex-performer and the farm’s ex-owner, a local school teacher who lost the house after her father died. She has reasons to be there which have nothing to do with the men.

But the biggest and best change comes in the form of Louise (Marya Grandy), Linda’s friend and sarcastic “fix-it man.” As a replacement for Mamie, Jim’s African-American maid in the film version, Louise is a Tina Fey-esque comedic godsend; Grandy walks away with the show like she’s Debbie Ocean. Her only competition is Patrick Scott McDermott as a pint-sized bill collector, Sally Dolembo’s effervescent costumes, and Jones’ absolutely dynamite choreography, particularly in big production numbers like “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers/Song of Freedom” and “Shaking the Blues Away.”

And let’s not forget about the “money songs,” either. Alongside “White Christmas,” which the film famously originated, this “Holiday Inn” includes Berlin standards like “Blue Skies” and “Cheek to Cheek.”

The show’s still a bit stuffy, and with vaudevillian tendencies that beg for a proscenium, it’s not ideally suited for Marriott’s in-the-round staging. But when you add the music of Irving Berlin onto a charming cast, superb choreography and a radically improved script, you get a show that doesn’t just draft off nostalgia; it surpasses it.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.

Marya Grandy and Michael Mahler are among the cast of the Marriott Theatre production of "Holiday Inn." | Liz Lauren

Marya Grandy and Michael Mahler are among the cast of the Marriott Theatre production of “Holiday Inn.” | Liz Lauren