Signature Theatre is known for reviving and revamping long forgotten musicals – and they don’t shy away from a challenge. Grand Hotel tells the story of a handful of strangers, drawn together as guests of the titular hotel at the center of Berlin during the city’s “Golden Era” of the mid- to late- 1920’s. During this brief respite between the end of World War I, and the rise of the Nazi Party ensuring a second world war, millions of dollars flooded into Berlin from American banks and Berliners witnessed a cultural renaissance that brought artists from around the world to its doorstep, inspiring a brief period of unbridled optimism and opulence.
Signature’s production captures all of the exuberance of this fleeting Golden Era, with an exquisitely rendered set and costumes and a cast of multi-talented performers who sing and dance with the grace and gusto of an old Hollywood musical. At the same time, Director Eric Schaeffer’s pared-down Grand Hotel wryly exposes the darker underbelly of a city lavished in wealth through the lives of the servant class whose own needs and desires are subjugated to the whims of their wealthy guests.
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Set designer Paul Tate dePoo III transforms Studio’s Max theater into the elegant, art-deco lobby of the Grand Hotel. A thrust stage—extending out in into the audience such that it is surrounded on three sides—centers on a large wooden reception desk with elegant curved staircases to either side leading to an upper balcony where the orchestra, led by Evan Rees, appears to be part of the hotel’s entertainment. The proscenium arch is overlain with elaborate metal fretwork in geometric-art deco inspired patterns, faux painted to create the warm patina of aged brass and hung with softly glowing crystal chandeliers. These panels extend around the entire theater creating a “frame” that makes the seated in the upstairs mezzanine appear as much a part of the action as the actors on the stage balcony. In whimsical contrast to the lobby’s old-world style, the stage’s faux marble floor tiles are later revealed to light up in various neon colors to match the mood of each song, as does an elaborate, oversized entry “door” hanging over the actors’ heads.
Robert Perdziola’s 1920’s inspired costumes—all in shades of black, white and gray with an occasional ‘pop’ of color—are as playful as they are intricate, the women flouncing about in dropped waist, flapper-esque dresses with beaded, geometric designs, the men in the slim suits and rakish hats of the day. Elizaveta Grushinskya (Natascia Diaz), the world-renowned prima ballerina who graces the Grand Hotel with her presence as part of her (8th) retirement tour, is positively resplendent in both her ballet and refined ‘traveling clothes,’ a perfectly tailored tea length suit draped with an extravagant fur.
Nkrumah Gatling, in the role of the impoverished Baron turned petty thief, is a vocal standout. With a stunningly rich baritone, I would listen to him sing through the phonebook. The two “Jimmy’s” (Ian Anthony Coleman and Solomon Parker III) are charming as American bellhops and jazz aficionados who lighten the mood with upbeat song and dance numbers and silly lobby antics. Nicki Elledge is similarly winning as the plucky “Flaemmchen,” a bubbly typist who dreams of making it in Hollywood. But it is local favorite Bobby Smith, as Otto Kringelein—a middle-aged Jewish man dying of a terminal illness who hopes to spend his final days luxuriating in the Grand Hotel—who steals the show with a performance as shyly funny as it is vulnerable.
While its excellent cast does much credit to Grand Hotel, the show itself still suffers from its long history of “renovations.” Based on a 1929 Austrian novel, the story was first adapted to a stage play, then a 1932 Academy award winning film (starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford), and a 1958 musical (At the Grand) that never quite made it to Broadway. Nearly 30 years later, director-choreographer Tommy Tune dug up the “fixer upper” and transformed it into a one-act musical comprised of non-stop dance numbers. Retaining only five songs from the original musical (music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest), Tune brought in Maury Yeston (Nine) to write six new songs and add additional lyrics to several of Wright and Forrest’s songs.
closes May 19, 2019
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Grand Hotel’s 1989 Broadway run was lauded as a risen-from-the-ashes success, but, despite Yeston’s contributions of several upbeat, full-cast numbers that give the show that old Broadway feel and infusion of more plot-driven lyrics, the show’s overall score remains disjointed. Wright and Forrest’s original songs—which comprise the bulk of the show’s first half and the character’s backstories—are repetitive and plodding, without much of a discernible harmony. Several include a kind of chanting, monotonous chorus in the background that is distracting, if not irritating (Merger is On). Yeston’s songs are markedly tighter, with more intricate harmonies and lyrics that reveal the characters’ thoughts and desires.
But Yeston & Tune’s attempts to transform Grand Hotel into a classic song-and-dance show are ultimately akin to a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling building. And Luther Davis’ original book—while largely pared down by Tune in the 1980’s and even further by Schaeffer in this production—is so darkly melodramatic (an aging prima ballerina falling for a bankrupt count half her age; a typist willing to sell her body and soul for a ticket to America) a modern audience might find it cringe-worthy.
Grand Hotel, book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Kelly Crandall D’Amboise; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.
Susan Davidson says
Grand Hotel is at Signature not Studio.