by Elisa Lichtenbaum
With Thanksgiving upon us and Christmas just around the corner, there’s no time like the present to get into the holiday spirit. To kick off this festive season, Great Performances presents Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – The Broadway Musical (Friday, November 24, 9 p.m.), Roundabout Theatre Company’s new musical inspired by the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire film. The exuberant musical, airing as part of Broadway’s Best on PBS, features thrilling dance numbers and a parade of hit Irving Berlin songs, including “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and “Blue Skies,” and “Shaking the Blues Away.”
The cast includes Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), Corbin Bleu (High School Musical, Godspell), Lora Lee Gayer (Follies), and Megan Sikora (Curtains). Adding extra sparkle to the production is ensemble member Darien Crago, who made her Broadway debut in the show.
An Ohio native, Darien has appeared in New York City Center Encores! productions of Paint Your Wagon and Lady, Be Good! (starring Tommy Tune), the national tour of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Throughly Modern Millie (Paper Mill Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera House), and Dames at Sea (Infinity Theatre Company). The expert tap dancer has also played Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street (Engeman Theater; Lexington Theatre Company) and Ginger Rogers in Backwards in High Heels (Westchester Broadway Theatre).
In the following interview, Darien talks about the life of a Broadway gypsy, Holiday Inn’s journey to Broadway, and more.
Congratulations on your Broadway debut! Did you take dance classes as a child and grow up dreaming of Broadway stardom?
Thank you so much! It still all feels a bit dream-like. Yes, I began ballet when I was three years old and added tap and jazz at six. I instantly LOVED it. Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to classic dance films with Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple at a young age and thus began my love of movie musicals. I did my first stage musical when I was 10 years old as the title character in Annie — most likely cast because of my over-excitement and abundance of curly hair — and was officially hooked on performing. I continued with a rigorous dance schedule all through school and attended Wright State University for my BFA in Musical Theater and Acting before moving to New York and beginning auditions. And now, years of hard work later, here we are!
What’s a typical day in the life of an aspiring Broadway dancer like?
There really isn’t a typical day. Gypsy life is ever-changing. But often, I can expect a full day to have a dance class or vocal coaching, possibly an audition (or two…or three…depending on the season), lunch or FaceTime with a friend or significant other, and some sort of day job — such as babysitting for my actor friends’ kids — to make some extra money between performing gigs. A special treat is getting to attend a show in the evening. It’s always so inspiring to see friends in their shows and keep up with what’s currently running on Broadway. Some incredible super-humans also find time to go to the gym during their days, but I hope all the literal running around I do during the day in the city counts as exercise — and allows me to keep eating cookies.
You appeared in the world premiere of Holiday Inn at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and in a later production at the St. Louis MUNY. How did the show evolve during its journey to Broadway?
Yes, I was very fortunate to see this show through every phase. I was part of the initial pre-production rehearsals with our fantastic choreographer Denis Jones in the summer of 2014, before our first out-of-town run at Goodspeed. Many of the iconic dance moments in the show were mere ideas at that point. I’ll never forget the day Denis came into the studio with a jump rope and said, “I have an idea,” which of course turned into the magical tap-dance-jump-rope sequence with the Christmas garland in “Shaking the Blues Away” that stopped the show each night!
Every aspect of the show went through major changes with each production. Some adjustments were relative to the size of the houses we performed in. Part of the charm of attending a show at Goodspeed is the intimate 350-seat historic Opera House, while The MUNY in St. Louis is an incredible outdoor theater that seats 11,000. Each venue helped our team figure out just the right combination of material to produce the loveable show that people saw on Broadway last year.
You’re featured prominently in the showstopping jump rope/tap dance sequence in “Shaking the Blues Away.” What was it like to rehearse and learn that inventive choreography – and perform it onstage eight times a week?
I think we all knew we had something special when we first successfully completed the sequence during rehearsals at Goodspeed and the room erupted in cheers. It took intense focus to make that thrilling sequence succeed, as all five of us — the three jumpers and two rope-turners — had to be perfectly in sync. If just one person anticipated or hesitated, it could throw off the whole rhythm — then add tap shoes! In order to prep for this, we had a “jump call” before every show, where we ran the jump rope sequence to check in with each other and get on the same page. Nothing beat the adrenaline rush that happened when the number ended and the audience burst into applause! Best feeling in the world.
What is your favorite moment, scene, or dance number in the show, and why?
Oh man, it really is hard to pick. It’s hard to top “Shaking the Blues Away,” but I need to give “Blue Skies” a special shout-out. This is the number early in the show where Jim (Bryce Pinkham) is moving from NYC to Connecticut, and all his showbiz friends help him unpack at his new farmhouse. (If only that were actually possible in three-and-a half-minutes!) This number is like theater eye-candy. There are a million props and little stories you can catch, all going on at the same time: I enter the stage with my arms full and a lamp shade on my head; boxes labeled “tap shoes” are tossed around (setting up a tap number later in the show); slapstick-esque choreography has people ducking under rolled-up rugs and being carried in chairs; a skunk is found in an old radiator; and then magically, the furnished, beautiful inn is revealed! It’s a blast to perform, and singing a gorgeous new arrangement of Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is a bonus!
Another favorite is singing the title song, “Holiday Inn,” during the New Year’s celebration at the end of Act I. The number is right out of a 1940s movie musical – it’s perfectly charming and has that classic all-American optimism and joy.
An astute audience member gave you the following rave review via Twitter: “Bless the #holidayinnmusical ensemble member Eve Harrington’ing in the corner during the film scene. I see you & your choices and I love it.” Tell us about this scene – and how you were cleverly stealing it!
Oh my goodness, I love that people caught those moments! This scene is near the end of the show when Linda (Lora Lee Gayer) is in Hollywood making the movie version of Holiday Inn, but is heartbroken over leaving Jim back in Connecticut. She’s having a rough time making it through the takes in her emotional state, so the make-up girl in the background is taking it upon herself to be ready to take her place juuuuuuust in case – in very Eve Harrington fashion, I suppose. I love the idea of this character, Darla, having aspirations of becoming a star and mouthing every word along with Linda. It always made me giggle every night — and I’m glad that others enjoyed it too.
How does it feel to be making your debut on PBS?
I am SO EXCITED to be premiering on PBS. Truly, what an honor. I grew up an avid PBS viewer — it was my dream to be a guest on Sesame Street! — and I was exposed to so many classic productions thanks to the wonderful Great Performances series. So, to think that other children could be inspired watching our show really makes my heart swell. Also, I’m so happy that many friends, relatives, and teachers who couldn’t make it into the city last holiday season will get to see the show.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently on tour with another great holiday show: White Christmas. It seems I can’t get enough of Irving Berlin! And then I head down to Florida to play Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain with the Wick Theatre. I’m really looking forward to tackling this dream role and doing my best to channel the phenomenal and beloved Debbie Reynolds.
See Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – The Broadway Musical on-air or online anywhere you watch PBS programming, including PBS.org and PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast. Visit the Broadway’s Best on PBS collection for in-depth features about She Loves Me and other Great Performances programs, and to watch previews and programs online. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #BroadwayonPBS.
ELISA LICHTENBAUM | @ElisaVonTap