Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018
On the media night of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) was celebrating its 50th birthday. Well, it had actually been celebrating it all year, but October 12, 2018, was officially Chanhassen Dinner Theatres Day, as per Governor Mark Dayton. The evening’s performance started out with comedic writer, actor, and director Pat Proft and broadcaster and actor Nancy Nelson reading off the governor’s declaration with polished charm and banter, and then Britta Bloomberg, the daughter of the theater’s founding family, spoke of the vision her father had when he built this place and how they had joked that, to be a historic site, it had to reach age 50 first. While there have been many stars that have come through CDT’s doors (like actress Amy Adams), what was rightly highlighted was the heart-warming magic this Minnesota theater has brought over the years. And in that regard, Holiday Inn is one of the best musicals Chanhassen could have chosen for the night.
Holiday Inn was based on the 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and, as such, it has that nostalgic feel where you understand the plot line within the first five minutes but love it anyway. They say things like “gee willikers” when something goes wrong, there isn’t a curl out of place for the women, and everyone is light on their feet and ready to dance at the drop of the hat—unless it’s for wholesome laughs. The drama isn’t allegory, and it always, always will have a happy ending.
The musical opens up with a vaudeville performance between trio Jim (Michael Gruber), an idealist who believes the simple life is the happy life; Ted (Tony Vierling), the tap dancer who hits every rhythm—and every show biz opportunity—with precision, and Lila (Jessica Fredrickson), Jim’s girlfriend who isn’t quite ready to leave the stage. Within the first two songs, the plot is already making its way down the track: Jim wants Lila to live with him on a farm in Connecticut and live a wholesome life, but Ted’s offer of a six-week contract proves too alluring. While Jim is waiting for Lila to finish what is allegedly her last hurrah, he moves onto the farm and meets the previous owner of the house, Linda (Ann Michels), a teacher who used to have dreams of performing, and former handyman Louise (Michelle Barber), who basically invites herself to live in the house again. (As she puts it, until they start making money, he can just provide the room and board for free.) Because it turns out Jim is a horrible farmer—shocking—he has to come up with a new idea to keep the estate from foreclosing: an inn that puts on a different show for every holiday.
Like in many a romantic comedy, Michels portrays Linda as much more mature, independent, and gracious compared to Fredrickson’s two-inch deep, nasally (and well-played) caricature of Lila. Thankfully, the audience doesn’t have to play the love triangle game for long, and the time saved gives Michels and Gruber a leisurely, old fashioned courting where sparks is measured in walks and awkward moments turn into inside jokes that are accompanied with a warm smile and a low pitch of the voice. Their relationship is mild but enriching, like an idyllic pond on a windless day, and it almost makes you question whether you should move to a small town where all you need in life is a piano, red licorice, honest work, and blue skies.
While everything in the show was well put-together, Berlin’s musical isn’t one of fire and edges but one that wraps you in a warm blanket and offers hot chocolate when you need it most. (Really, the biggest energy kick of the play was Louise, and Barber plays her with all the frankness, shameless meddling, elbow grease, and humor that you need for such a role.)
With the help of costume designer Rich Hamson, music director Andy Kust, choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson, and set designer Nayna Ramey, whose inn was encompassing but not overdone, CDT puts on a show you and your family could go to again and again every year because of the good will, harmless conflict, and on-point production. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has always been one to put on musical favorites rather than cutting-edge plays with “timeliness” and urgent messages, but for its 50th birthday, the message seemed to be this: We wish you find happiness and love, and we hope this night has given you a piece of life’s uncomplicated joys.