Review: GRAND HOTEL (at the Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on June 2, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Book by Luther Davis

Music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest

Based on Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston

Directed by Eda Holmes

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Parker Esse

Designed by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Kyle Blair

James Daly

Deborah Hay

Patty Jamieson

Matt Nethersole

Kiera Sangster

Vanessa Sears

Travis Seetoo

Jeremiah Sparks

Steven Sutcliffe

Michael Therriault

Jay Turvey

Jenny L. Wright

A mediocre musical given a disappointing production in spite of a strong cast and lively choreography.

The Story

It’s based on the 1929 book written by Vicki Baum. It became an award winning film in 1932. Then after many stops and starts it became the 1989 Broadway musical, Grand Hotel winning 5 Tony Awards.

It takes place in a luxurious hotel called the Grand Hotel, in Berlin in 1928—before the crash, after the horrors of the WWI.

It’s narrated by the cynical, bitter Colonel-Doctor who is haunted by his experiences in WWI that left him with a severe limp and a heroin addiction. If I hadn’t read the program I wouldn’t have known that this whole swirl of a show is a result of a heroin induced nightmare.

We meet the various guests: Baron von Gaigern is a dashing aristocrat who needs a lot of money fast, a thug  keeps leaning on him to pay his debts; Elizaveta Grushinksaya is an elegant ballerina past her best by date and she knows it;  her assistant Raffaela is inordinately devoted to her;  Flaemmchen is a secretary who  dreams of a Hollywood career; Otto Kringelein is a very sick old man who wants one last fling; Hermann Preysing is a businessman about to lose his company if he doesn’t get a merger with a company in Boston; and there are many and various other stories that go on in the background, such as the angry and downtrodden who do the drudge work in the hotel, while the rich and elegant people try and score an opportunity.

And of course, this being a musical, they all sing about it. If it all sounds familiar it’s because there have been other shows on this theme before and after it. There is the musical of Dance a Little Closer, 1983 based on Idiot’s Delight that took place before WWII in Europe in a hotel while the guests waited frantically to get out. Recently there was Morris Panych and Brenda Robins’ comedy, Picture This about people in a grand hotel desperate for advancement, a break, money, etc.

The Production. On the whole I found it underwhelming. The lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest are clever but their music is unremarkable and sounds repetitive as if they are going to insist we remember the tunes. Almost every  character gets a solo song whether it’s earned or not.

Eda Holmes directed it and Judith Bowden designed it. Both are wonderful, smart talents, as is so clear from work they have done before, but they are not displaying their best work here.

If a lyric says that ‘people come and go through a revolving door’, then it seems a clear indication that guests would make a grand entrance through a revolving door in this Grand Hotel. Perhaps it’s a perverse decision but there is no revolving door or even a sense of a door in Judith Bowden’s gleaming, high, mirrored columned set. The mirrored columns revolve and change light. Very impressive.  Characters make entrances and exits through the audience, down both aisles. This is rather anti-climactic and not dramatic. There’s a large lobby with receptionists who float around the set with phones up to their ears, taking calls. There is a bit of a grand staircase, upstage left, that is initially in the lobby, but it’s oddly used.

I can appreciate that guests would go up to their rooms via the grand staircase. But sometimes when the scene is in a guest’s room the person exits up that staircase. I wonder, is there  a winding staircase in the room? In truth there is only one scene specifically in a guest’s room—Elizaveta Grushinskaya’s (Deborah Hay) room, when she is entertaining the Baron (James Daly). In both cases, when the Baron first leaves her and later when she leaves the room, they both go up the winding staircase. Other times movable staircases are moved on and off for a scene in another part of the hotel–Again, I could not figure out the geography of where a scene is located or why.

And it’s loud. Everybody is microphoned—the orchestra, the cast–and they  drown each other out. Often I could not make out the lyrics. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Parker Esse’s choreography is lively and inventive certainly in “We’ll Take a Glass Together” Klingelein’s break-out show stopper.

The strong cast is terrific. Baron von Gaigern is played with dashing charm by James Daly. He has a strong voice and is the very picture of an aristocrat who looks everything and has nothing.

Deborah Hay is luminous as Elizaveta Grushinkskaya and also has that haunted, world-weary look about her of a woman who knows her career is over and it’s painful. Yet as Grushinskaya limbers up, going on pointe, we certainly get the sense of how great that dancer must have been. Equally as haunted is Patty Jamieson as Raffaela, Grushinskaya’s over protective assistant. She hides her secret love for Grushinskaya as she sings the plaintive “How Can I Tell Her?”

Michael Therriault plays Otto Kringelein—stooped, ill, confused, sweet, trusting and a bundle of energy when he gets a new lease on life. He practically stops the show with “We’ll Take a Glass Together” as Kringelein is grabbing at life, dancing and flying through the air as he clings to a revolving mini-bar.

Putting matters in focus and narrating what is going on is the cynical Colonel-Doctor, played with moody brooding by Steven Sutlcliffe

Comment. In the time of #MeToo we are certainly mindful of behaviour that would have been acceptable in 1928 but is just creepy and unacceptable now. Flaemmchen (a plucky, solid Vanessa Sears) agrees to be a ‘secretary’ for Hermann Preysing, (an oily Jay Turvey) a shady businessman, who wants her to go with him to America on business. Repeatedly he says that he wants her to ‘be nice to him.’ We know what that subtext means. Creepy.

So as I said, it’s a strong cast, but an odd production of an musical that won a lot of awards almost 30 years ago but now seems just dreary.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: May 23, 2018.

Closed: October 14, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.

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1 Ann June 21, 2018 at 12:38 pm

A very disappointing performance. James Daly very spoiled the whole thing.