It could be anywhere – a restaurant, an airport, a cruise ship – but a handful of lives bristling with anticipations and fears comes together at the Grand Hotel. They check in, they play their own personal dramas, sometimes they even intersect, and then they check out.
Vicki Baum’s novel was set in 1928 Berlin, a place and time of financial and cultural recovery from WWI. Unlike “Cabaret” where German hedonists dedicated themselves to a “Tomorrow we die!” debauchery, “Grand Hotel” has a more restrained clientele. From the novel, it quickly became the 1932 film starring Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford and won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was only a matter of time before someone thought it should be a musical.
That 1989 musical, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is what’s on the Max stage at Signature Theatre. In terms of performances and design, it’s polished to a gleam. In terms of music and story, the memorable songs are the rare ones while the book itself is a patchwork, some stories more intriguing than others, none more than a piece of the web.
Scene designer Paul Depoo III has wrapped the Max in ornate Art Deco-style rails suggesting that as viewers, we are intimate but silent guests of the Grand. A glossy front desk upstage center is framed by symmetrical curving staircases leading to an upper level of bronze wall sconces and more intricate railing. Colin Bills’ specific lighting adds depth and focus to individual performers on the marble tiled squares.
From his quiet perches throughout the stage, Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag (Lawrence Redmond), an eye-patched veteran of the previous war, watches and comments on the human traffic before us.
In spite of its bubbling energy and Kelly D’Amboise’s kicky choreography, the show is a bit of a slow starter. In an hour and forty-five uninterrupted minutes of play time, it takes nearly a half hour to introduce the disparate characters and get a grasp on who they are and why they’re here.
Radiating fears of ruin, General Director Preysing (Kevin McAllister) bustles importantly about as he awaits news of the corporate merger that will save his company as well as his own financial life. When he, a penniless Baron, and ensemble belt out “The Crooked Path” there isn’t much mystery as to the trajectory of their lives.
Hitting an entirely different note is the naïve but anxiously optimistic typist, Flaemmchen, (Nicki Elledge) who has her sights set on a Hollywood career and imagines that being secretary to an important person (such as the omnivorous Preysing) on his Atlantic crossing will give her a start. Her touching song “Girl in the Mirror” reflects that hopefulness even as we want to send her a warning telegram.
A strange bright piece of punctuation is The Two Jimmys (Ian Coleman and Solomon Parker III) in their highly carbonated and infectious song and dance “Maybe My Baby Loves Me.” That high note of fun gives way to Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Natascia Diaz), prima ballerina, and her entourage as they perform “Fire & Ice.” At forty-nine plus years, she knows more viscerally than anyone that her professional life is closing. Her loving aides, which include the faithful assistant, Raffaela, (Crystal Mosser) have high stakes in the show going on. But for all her star reputation and delicate beauty, she is the one who hears the lackluster applause.
Baron Felix von Gaigern (Nkrumah Gatling), a titled European aristocrat who is, of course, broke, strains our sympathies for his entitled habits. Nevertheless, when he sparks the only true love affair of the evening (“Love Can’t Happen”) with Elizabeta, his ardor is convincing, which makes the unexpected events to follow more tragic.
Perhaps most engaging of the characters is Bobby Smith’s portrayal of Otto Kringelein, a Jewish accountant who is dying. Looking back on a life of colorless tedium, he has decided to spend what time he has left and all his money in a place of luxury. Some hardened prejudices erupt when he shows up, clearly not the “sort of person” the Grand is accustomed to serving, but a word from the Baron eases the situation. Kringelein’s unfamiliar joy is reflected in the touching “Table with a View/At the Grand Hotel.”
Characters are dressed in Robert Perdziola’s costumes of pearl and silver greys tailored up or down to reflect the social standing of the wearer. Convincing range, from Elizaveta’s fabulous fox furs to the grime and dirt of the scullery workers.
It takes awhile, but ultimately we invest in the stories, take an interest in the outcome, and admire the singing to Jon Kalbfleisch’s orchestra tucked away behind a scrim. Some might find an hour and forty-five a lengthy sit without a break, but there’s really no coherent place to pause without disrupting the forward motion of unfolding stories. It’s all beautifully designed and well performed. Welcome to the “Grand Hotel.”
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Grand Hotel”
Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.
Call: (703) 820-9771
Playing through May 19