New “Holiday Inn” at Music Guild a Gift for First-Time Director and Cast
Luke Vermeire of 61 and his Quad City Music Guild cast of “Holiday Inn” have plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
The week after this holiday, they will put on the Irving Berlin musical (based on the classic 1942 film that gave the world “White Christmas”), from Dec. 1 to 5 at the Prospect Park Theater, 1584 34th Ave., 74.
Vermeire, a 20-something first-time director, was in the cast for July’s “Mamma Mia!” at Guild, and noticed no one had applied for “Holiday Inn” by then. “I said, how great would it be if I applied having no directing experience?” he said recently. “And they gave me the show, and much as is the case with community theater, you have to be careful who you say those things around because five months later, here we are.”
Vermeire made sure to surround himself with very supportive, qualified people in his directing staff and crew – including Shana Kulhavy as choreographer; Deb Shippy as assistant director; Susan Zelnio as stage manager; Mitchell Carter as music director; Chad Schmertmann as assistant music director and Andy Sederquist as set designer.
Having performing experience (on stage for a half dozen shows) also was a big plus, Vermeire said.
“I think that really helps having a director that has been on stage frequently,” he said. “And having an actor as a director. I feel like I have a little bit different of an approach. It’s been really fun.”
He’s learned from every other director he’s worked with, from the time Vermeire (a Rockridge High alum) first was in 66 Junior Theatre at age seven. “I feel like this was always where my theater experience was leading towards,” he said. “I even reached out to Jake Walker, who was one of my high school theater directors, and I thanked him for teaching me how to do this character-building work and stuff, because it really pays off.”
In “Holiday Inn,” when singer-songwriter Jim Hardy tires of showbiz, he shocks his best friend Ted and fiancee Lila by leaving the bright lights of Broadway behind and for a calm life in a Connecticut farmhouse. At first, he greets his new life with enthusiasm, but, just as he starts to think farm life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, he meets Linda Mason, a spunky schoolteacher harboring immense talent and big dreams.
Together, they bring life back to the Mason farm by transforming it into the Holiday Inn, a lively venue for festive performances celebrating the red letter days on the calendar. However, when Ted shows up ready to spirit Linda away to Hollywood, will Jim lose his best shot at happiness?
It’s got dance numbers galore and a score packed with Irving Berlin classics like “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Easter Parade,” “Heat Wave,” “Shaking the Blues Away” and the beloved “White Christmas.”
“Holiday Inn” was performed at Circa ’21, 61, in summer 2019, and the new version features Tyler Henning as Jim, Lauren VanSpeybroeck as Linda, Daniel Williams as Ted, Susie Carsell-Schaechter as Lila, Mark Kulhavy as Danny, Peyton Beck as Charlie, and Jess Fah as Louise.
“We had a hard time finding dancers and we found a group of six really awesome ladies that can tap,” Vermiere said, noting choreographer Shana Kulhavy and he made the decision to not try and add men.
“Let’s just change the arrangement and everybody’s placement and I think it’s one of the better decisions we’ve made,” Vermeire said. “It looks really clean to have an ensemble of all women.”
The dance ensemble is Megan Winchelle, Stephanie Truitt, Emily Brooks, Faith Hardacre-Meuser, Leslie Aboud, Izzy Bartscher, Lillian Fincher, and Juliet Hunt.
Because “Holiday Inn” is a dance-heavy show (almost half the run time is dance numbers), Vermeire took the opportunity to work with individual leads to dive into their characters and back stories.
“One of the things I specifically wanted to do was look at the meaning behind the ballads. Because oftentimes, I feel like some musicals, they just throw a ballad in for the sake of having a ballad,” he said, noting “Nothing More to Say” as an example.
“It’s in Act I and it’s a really beautiful song and we kind of talked about the back story behind what some of the lyrics mean to her and as a character,” he said of Linda.
The musical is very different from the 1942 movie, and Vermeire updated its style and timing to be more contemporary. “So it’s kind of unique that we have a classic musical with a modern feel. It plays really, really nicely together,” he said. “If you go back and you watch the movie, the comedic pacing is different than it was in the ‘40s. We’ve definitely created a comedic timing that’s a little bit more a situational comedy. There’s a lot of sarcasm in this, but there’s still a lot of that classic slapstick and a lot of that high-energy comedy that was really popular back in the day. So they did a really good job, and it’s a beautiful score too.”
Berlin (1888-1989), a Jewish immigrant, reportedly wrote “White Christmas” while in California. The rarely performed verse goes: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A./But it’s December the twenty-fourth/And I am longing to be up North.” One day, he told his secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” Its first public performance was by Bing Crosby, on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day 1941, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Crosby sang it again in his starring role in 1942’s “Holiday Inn.”
Appreciating the value of theater
Henning and VanSpeybroeck are both Guild holiday season veterans – he was on stage for the last two: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and “Miracle in Bedford Falls” and she was a Cratchit daughter in 2016’s “A Christmas Carol.”
In “Holiday Inn,” Linda is a teacher of 10-year-olds who does theater on the side. “That sounds very familiar,” said VanSpeybroeck, who in real life is a teacher at 62’s Glenview Middle School who does theater on the side. Her last Music Guild role also was a sympathetic teacher, Miss Honey, in August’s “Matilda The Musical.”
Henning (a 2012 Augustana alum who’s also acted at 57 and Playcrafters) works in IT for G and R Integration Services in Walcott, and loves theater as an “excellent social outlet.”
“Coming out here, I get to spend time with people and it’s like playing pretend,” he said. “It’s the socially acceptable way to play pretend as an adult. It’s just a treat to try and figure out to how to creatively embody somebody else.”
After seeing Vermeire’s enthusiasm during “Secret Garden” rehearsals (in early 2020), and use his humor on stage, it’s been a treat working with him as a new director, VanSpeybroeck (a winter 2018 grad of University of Northern Iowa) said.
“He’s really good; you wouldn’t know it’s his first time,” she said, noting many performers also direct. “He’s done an amazing job. When I’ve seen him on stage, the little bits, his creativity, it’s so funny. In shows, behind the scenes he’s always doing something hilarious. You have to be looking for it – you see it and crack up. His vision for this show is just very clear.”
VanSpeybroeck appreciates his devotion to character development, and both she and Henning are awestruck by the female dance ensemble.
“They’re amazing; they are the best,” she said.
“They’re working so hard,” Henning said. “I’m blown away by how hard they’ve worked.”
While VanSpeybroeck is a veteran dancer with Guild, this is the first show that shows off her tap skills, she said. “I tapped a lot as a kid and then about a year ago Steph DeLacy started offering tap lessons, and she’s a good friend, so I took one-on-one lessons with her, masked and socially distanced.”
The Guild spring and holiday shows are traditionally just one weekend, and they don’t mind having a shorter run. “I think a lot of people in theater in the area lately have learned that it’s a lot about the process and not necessarily the product,” Vermeire said. “It’s learning to love the rehearsal time, because at any moment, the show could get ripped out from under you.”
That painfully happened to him and VanSpeybroeck in March 2020, as “The Secret Garden” was cancelled two weeks before opening due to Covid. Vermeire was scenic designer for that show, which was never produced.
“That has definitely changed my approach to how I understand my involvement with community theater, and the theater process over the course of the last year,” he said. “Making the best product that I can, and having as much fun as I can, because at the end of the day, if we’re not having fun in community theater, you’re not in it for the paycheck.”
“Holiday Inn” is requiring both audiences and performers to wear face masks, due to the continued Illinois mask mandate.
“That kind of gave us a unique approach because half of our face is covered with the masks, so the staging is a little bit different,” Vermeire said. “You have to open up more to the audience because less of your face is seen and then acting more with your body language than with your face.”
Diction and projection from the performers are challenging, whether or not they’re wearing masks, the director said.
“As a society, I think we’ve gotten better about pronunciation and projecting in our day-to-day lives because we have had to have conversations with our faces covered,” Vermeire said. “So I feel like everybody as a whole has gotten better at our diction. So I think it’s actually been fairly easy this time around. I’m sure once we really start getting in there with mics and stuff like that, it’s going to be different. But as of right now, I really haven’t had to harp on it as much as I thought I would.”
VanSpeybroeck also performed wearing a mask for “Matilda” and said it went fine. Their taped body mics (she puts hers on her forehead) pick up voices very well, she said.
“I would rather do a show with masks than have to cancel a show,” she said. “It’s all about the attitude. I’m wearing one all day at work from 7 to 3. It’s just normal now. I don’t mind it, to keep everyone healthy and safe.”
Doing “Mamma Mia!” (for which Vermeire also did set design) was the perfect show at the perfect time in the pandemic. “It’s one of the more fun shows in the musical theater repertoire and it happened to be our first show back,” he said. “It was the one show this summer that got a normal run without masks and all that stuff. And I mean, the timing on that couldn’t have been better.”