CD Review: IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN (Original Broadway Cast on Ghostlight Records)

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by Tony Frankel on August 6, 2017



OK, let’s get the confusion out of the way. If you’re not at all familiar with the Paramount films Holiday Inn and White Christmas, listening to the just-released Original Broadway Cast album Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (which had a short stint on Broadway in 2016) could be a pleasant enough experience first time ’round. Especially if you haven’t heard the similar-sounding stage version Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (which had a short stint on Broadway in 2008) AND you’re not familiar with the Irving Berlin songbook.

But I had to shake my head a few times wondering what’s going on with the salvaged song selections. And, especially, why are they peppy, pretty and pleasing but also conventional and white bread? I became more adjusted with repeat listenings, but the arrangements are derivative of old movie musicals without being nearly as exciting as the work of MGM’s great Conrad Salinger. Older folks may enjoy this trip down memory lane, but I don’t see this as converting millennials into loving the Great American Songbook.

The film Holiday Inn introduced the song “White Christmas” to the world in 1942, and because it was the most successful song in history, a very loose remake titled White Christmas arrived 12 years later in 1954 (Bing Crosby’s version remains the best selling single to this day, over 100 million copies sold). One movie centers on a failing inn saved by entertainers, the other movie centers on entertainers at an inn in danger of failing. The studio even used much of the same set, remodeled naturally.

But plots are the least important thing when you’re dealing with jukebox musicals these days. Consider that the stage show Irving Berlin’s White Christmas contains songs from Holiday Inn the film, and the stage show Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn contains songs from White Christmas the film, including “Heat Wave,” a Berlin standard from the 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer. “Blue Skies,” the popular song from the musical Betsy (1926), was in the film Blue Skies in 1946, and then was added to the film Holiday Inn AND the stage version of White Christmas, only to end up back in Holiday Inn the musical. You almost need to know quantum physics to figure this shit out.

And then out of the blue skies, included on Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (recently released on Ghostlight Records) is”It’s a Lovely Day Today,” a catchy song from Berlin’s Call Me Madam (1950), which also had the comic song “Mr. Monotony,” which originally was written for and dropped from the MGM film Easter Parade, the title song of which is also from As Thousands Cheer and is in both the stage and cinema versions of Holiday Inn. And then a few lines of “Cheek to Cheek” appear in the finale, but not in the show!

Much of this may not matter if you’re watching the musical Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn which, if Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is any indicator, will be coming to a giant barn near you during the holiday season, or any season for that matter, as it focuses on all the year’s holidays. But probably Christmastime because a) “Holiday” is in the title and b) having the song “White Christmas” in the show will pack ’em in (in addition to Bing’s version, another 50 million singles by other artists have been sold).

Universal now has the rights to some of Paramount’s “back-catalogue” (the quotes are courtesy of the liner notes by Ted Chapin, President of R&H Theatricals). So, keep that financial sausage grinder going! But I wonder: If you’re going to cover these songs yet again, why be milquetoast about it? Because sophistication and panache don’t come to mind, this recording is like an extraordinarily beefed-up cruise ship revue (“Heat Wave” should sizzle instead of being just sufficient); although it does grow on you, especially when perfect song meets perfect arrangement (“You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Let’s Say It with Firecrackers”).

There’s much to admire vocally, but there’s also a sorry lack of idiosyncratic singing, and most women fall into the typical bold, brassy, sassy Merman knockoff category: Megan Sikora mixes the peroxide-headed dame persona with a big sound (“It’s a Lovely Day Today”); and Megan Lawrence, who has perhaps the most distinction (“Shaking the Blues Away” is one of the score’s best) is woefully underused. Lora Lee Gayer has that modern soprano that’s part Kristin Chenoweth, part Kelli O’Hara, and all belt (“Marching Along with Time”).

I loved Bryce Pinkham’s vocal gymnastics and Ziegfeld Follies-esque tenor (“Steppin’ Out with My Baby”), but his low notes are very soft, which means his “White Christmas” is especially anemic; and Corbin Bleu has a lovely voice but there’s no chance for it to catch you; he doesn’t have a solo breakout number — and he’s a leading character!

Larry Blank’s orchestrations are best for the swinging songs’ brass (“Song of Freedom” is off-the-charts hot and the “Overture” cooks) but the ballads don’t fare as well: “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” needs more than a merry-go-round sound and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (which Berlin thought was going to be the big hit) is too straightforward, while the “Entr’acte” veers dangerously close to a 70s’ telethon feel. Blank is also an awesome conductor, but here that job goes to John Miller, who keeps his players tight. Sam Davis and Bruce Pomahac offer typically snazzy arrangements, but there’s no attempt at experimentation, and the chorus can be lost in this recording to the loud orchestra (the tapping can be strangely soft, too).

This isn’t an inspired effort, but it isn’t insulting either. In the long run, this CD suits our modern conservation efforts: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

photos of Broadway production by Joan Marcus

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn
Ghostlight Records
21 tracks | 50:15 minutes
with 16-page color booklet
released on July 21, 2017
to purchase, visit Ghostlight or Amazon

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