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Candlelight Dinner Playhouse Presents Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn

The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown opened its doors in 2007 as the largest dinner theater in Colorado. Their multi-talented staff serves up exquisite meals, thematically prepared for each show, and performs Broadway-style musical theater. Pat Payne has been the production manager for three years. His passion for theater and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse is evident.

“The production value of each show is the best possible, and we bring in the best talent in the region,” Pat says.

In addition to an ardent team of talent, the aesthetics of the theater are everything you would hope for in such an experience. The blue hues of the 350-seat theater project a dramatic ambiance. The vaulted ceilings allow for superb acoustics, and the tables are arranged for optimal viewing for each seat in the house with ample space between tables.

The two leading actresses from the theater’s newest production, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, agreed to sit down with us to discuss the production. Susannah Ballenski Houdesheldt and Sara Kowalski play opposing characters in Holiday Inn; however, in real life, the two are actually best friends. The chemistry between the two of them in real life is indisputable, which lends itself to a wonderful kind of in-character tension that can only be brought by two individuals who know each other well.

Susannah Ballenski Houdesheldt, from Fort Collins, plays Lila Dickson. Lila is motivated solely by fame, which drives every single one of her decisions. She will do whatever she needs to do to get to a place where she gets recognition.

"She is the antithesis of the overall show’s meaning, but she ends up making it in the end,” Susannah says.

While this character might suffer from a flawed perspective on life and relationships, she is sure to dazzle the audiences with her dancing.

Susannah attended The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York City as part of their Integrated Conservatory Program, which includes acting, singing and dancing. She has played in a myriad of shows such as Kiss Me Kate, Oliver, Scrooge, Tarzan, and most recently, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After Holiday Inn, Susannah has no plans of slowing down as she will be coming back to the stage in the upcoming feature, Jekyll and Hyde. This show will be running at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse from the end of January until the end of March 2020.

While Susannah’s character, Lila, might be driven by success to a fault, the audience can expect Susannah to portray her in a stunning performance, which will take advantage of Susannah’s background in gymnastics. There are impressive lifts, which demonstrate the physical abilities of the cast. The show offers a host of dance scenes that represent each holiday, including an incredible jump roping, double-dutch, tap dance number that is not to be missed.

Sara Kowalski, also from Fort Collins, plays Linda Mason, a school teacher in a small town in Connecticut, who at one time had big dreams about being a performer. Linda meets the man (Jim), who bought her family’s foreclosed-on farmhouse and feels an immediate connection with him. Jim, a former performer who was betrayed by his fiancée (Lila) and friend (Ted), moves to the farmhouse. He soon renovates the farmhouse into an inn to feature musical theater shows, but only on holidays. Linda begins to fall in love with Jim, as she realizes that they both want the same things in life.

If Lila is the antithesis of what the show stands for, then Jim’s perspective on life gives light to what the show is striving towards. During a scene where Jim speaks to a friend he says, “Every once in a while we have to stop in our pursuit of happiness to just be happy.” This falls exactly in line with Sara’s portrayal of Linda, who has allowed life to take her where it needed to but has always remembered who she is at heart and made time to find happiness wherever that might be.

Sara went to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where she pursued a major in acting and performance and a minor in dance. She began her performing career in dinner theater at Carousel Dinner Theater in Fort Collins. However, her family jokes that she actually began her career in acting at 4 months old when she played baby Jesus. Either way, Sara has spent her life on the stage.

Sara has quite a few shows under her belt as well, including Beauty and the Beast, 42nd Street, Man of La Mancha, Newsies and West Side Story (twice.) Holiday Inn will be her 17th show at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Sara believes that the people involved with the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse are the reason the shows are so special.

“For many of us, this is our main job or our only job, and we always want to come back to raise the bar for each show with the costumes, music, sets, makeup and choreography. All of us care so deeply and are constantly wanting to improve,” Sara says.

The show’s choreographer is a former Rockette, Kate Vallee, who happens to be an expert in the particular dance styles featured in Holiday Inn. Both Susannah and Sara raved about the opportunity to work with someone of her caliber.

“She has a clear vision and incredible talent," Susannah says, "and has really been pushing the physical limits of the ensemble.”

In this performance, physical agility and strength are paired with careful research of the time period.

The entire team has been doing their homework on what 1940s America encompassed. Everything from fashion trends to the emotional weight of WWII has been considered for this performance. The production features hundreds of fabulous costumes with rapid, mid-scene wardrobe changes. There will be no shortage of style to showcase the glitz and glamour that 1940s Hollywood was known for. We can also expect to hear all the Irving Berlin classics.

“The audience will hear all the original songs that invoke the traditional feelings of nostalgia, Christmas spirit and well-being,” Sara says.

Sitting down with Susannah and Sara was such a great experience. Both of them are so positive and energetic in real life, they are sure to put on a great show. They hope that since the show runs through the holidays, the community will take a moment to enjoy some quality entertainment, either as a break from the busyness that the holidays often employs, or perhaps with family who might be visiting from out of town. Either way, this musical will be a lively experience that people of all ages will be certain to enjoy.

“We pride ourselves on telling great stories, that give you an experience from beginning to end.”

—Pat Payne, Production Manager

“I think about the theater 90% of the time.” – Sara Kowalski

“This show is the whole package; there’s so many sparkles.” – Susannah Ballenski Houdesheldt

  • Susanna Ballenski Houdesheldt plays Lila Dickson in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn
  • Sara Kowalski plays Linda Mason in Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn