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Walnut features South Philly in “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn”

The musical, showcasing an anthology of American smashes, will run at the WST through Oct. 21.

South Philly residents Kimberly Maxson (in green) and Casey Elizabeth Gill (in yellow) perform in the ensemble of WST’s “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” (Photo special to South Philly Review)

Contrary to popular belief, “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is not actually a holiday musical.

While watching the Walnut Street Theatre’s performance of this prolific composer’s anthology of American smashes, audiences may recognize the sounds of several celebrations but the shindigs are not exclusive to one season.

“We can’t stress enough that this is not a holiday show. … You will hear ‘White Christmas,’ and you should,” said Passyunk Square resident and Walnut veteran Fran Prisco. “But, it’s about all of the holidays.”

Prisco, who portrays the talent agent of the show’s two leads — played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the original 1942 film — is one of a few South Philly residents tackling roles in the theatre’s first Mainstage production of its 210th season.

Prisco, along with ensemble members Kimberly Maxson, also of Passyunk Square, and Casey Elizabeth Gill, who resides off of South Street, recall being wonderstruck by the story after watching the iconic feature film as children.

“This is an old classical musical in that — scene, song, scene, song,” Prisco explained. “Scene leads up to song.”

Set in the mid-1940s, a famed New York City performer retires from show business, retreating to a modest farm in Connecticut. After his diva former fiancée and bumptious best friend opt to stay on the road to Hollywood, the ex-entertainer seeks a simple life in agriculture.

But, needing to make ends meet, he decides to transform his new estate into a live performance theatre that solely produces shows on holidays. Along the way, he resurrects his devotion for songwriting and romance.

When these South Philly thespians, all of whom have been seen on the Walnut’s stage before, heard the theatre was delivering the show this season, they immediately jumped on board, noting that the musical’s spectacle lies in its simplicity.

“I just love the fact of performing a show in this world that we’re in right now — that the storyline is dessert and it’s sugary and happy and surface-level,” Gill said, a New Jersey native and former figure skater. “You can kind of take a break. When we’re up there tap dancing, I’m not thinking about anything else but tap dancing.”

From flamboyant turkey fan tails to exuberant Easter bonnets, the costume changes are as drastic as the seasons. Most ensemble numbers, though, retain intricate tap numbers, incarnating the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Like Gill, Maxson also has a history of foot flair, as the Long Island native grew up doing competitive Irish step dancing, which, she says, has prepared her for this performance.

“Irish dancing is a lot of stamina. It’s a lot of, like keep going, keep going. And, you’re making sounds with your feet,” Maxson said. “I’ve only actually ever taken one tap class in my life. … But, I can hear it, because the sounds are similar to what I grew up doing.”

At one point in the show, she even masters the rhythmic step while jumping rope.

Whether portraying rejoicing rural neighbors or Las Vegas foxtrotters, most of the ensemble scenes feature couple-based routines. For the cast, mastering this chemistry was an art in and of itself.

“With skating,” said Gill, who is also understudying the role of Lila Dixon. “I had to give my body towards a whole different kind of momentum that wasn’t really from my own body, so having a partner lift me in the air or spin me around feels — you kind of have to have a lot of trust in your fellow dancers.”

The choreography is among many components of the musical the cast aims to not modernized.

South Philly resident and Walnut veteran Fran Prisco (center) performs in WST’s “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” (Photo special to South Philly Review)

Unlike the influx of new plays and musicals that strive to capture today’s political and social climate, the beauty of “Holiday Inn” is its disposition in the 20th century.

Considering the Walnut’s own history, the cast says this timeless proscenium stage suits the score and storyline.

“The building lends itself to this style,” Prisco said.

“The music itself — it’s classic American,” Maxson added. “Irving Berlin wrote this music years ago…It’s in this musical in the oldest theatre in the country. It’s amazing.”

They say the production, which runs through Sunday, Oct. 21, has been well-received by audiences, as they feel folks are transported back to another time, like a childhood memory, perhaps, when they watch the performance.

But, the cast wants theatergoers to know the show, despite its 1940s-setting, is intended for audiences of all ages, taking the tradition of screening classic musicals in living rooms and re-approaching it for a new generation in live performance.

“We grew up watching this movie with our families, and I think, the beauty of live theatre is that you get to watch it happening right in front of you,” Gill said. “So, rather than watching it on a DVD at Christmas — we all watched it with our families on a TV — families can come and watch it happen right in front of them with real people.”

Info: To learn more about show times, tickets and more, visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/show/irving-berlins-holiday-inn

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