by Clark Groome

To an old musical comedy lover who grew up in what is now known as “The Golden Age of the American Musical” (roughly 1943 to 1970), the Walnut Street Theatre Company’s energetic, entertaining and impressive production of “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is a joy to behold.

It’s not just nostalgia that makes “Holiday Inn” such a delight. It’s a stunning cast and a score that is filled with some of the greatest entries in Berlin’s part of the Great American Songbook, many of which were not in the original movie that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Here’s a partial list: “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” “White Christmas,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Easter Parade.” In today’s parlance the Walnut’s “Holiday Inn” could be called a “jukebox musical,” but wow, what a jukebox!

The original story about New York performer Jim Hardy (the extraordinary Ben Dibble in what may his most impressive role yet) who wants to marry Lila Dixon (Bonnie Kelly), move to a farm in Connecticut and raise a family has been adapted for the stage by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge.

It still includes his best friend Ted Hanover (Jacob Tischler in the original Fred Astaire role), who runs off with Lila to become stars in Hollywood; the local Linda Mason (the charming Cary Michelle Miller), who becomes Jim’s new love interest; and the devoted housekeeper Louise (played with the right combination of humor and wisdom by Mary Martello).

While the book may seem a bit recycled and perhaps even dated, it still works. Charles Abbott has directed “Holiday Inn,” which plays through October 21, with wit and with respect for the material.

Ben Dibble, who has the lion’s share of the songs, is at his peak. Not only is he a tremendous actor, his singing, always a major asset, is better than I’ve ever heard him. His “White Christmas” makes you forget about that Crosby fellow’s version.

The other principals are also very good, as is the chorus, which Michelle Gaudette has choreographed brightly.

The physical production is just as good as the performances. Robert Andrew Kovach has captured the various locales, especially the Inn, cleverly. Jack Mehler has brightly lighted it all. Most stunning are Mary Folino’s God-knows-how-many costumes, all of which seem just right.

“Holiday Inn” kicks off the Walnut’s 210th season and its 36th year as a producing organization. I’ve been covering them for all of those 36 years, and I can’t remember any of their often-very-good musicals coming as close to perfection as this one does. One of the songs not mentioned above is “Plenty to be Thankful For,” which is a perfect description of the Walnut’s production of “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn.”

For tickets call 215-574-3550 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org

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