THE BASICS: This 1989 musical version of Vicki Baum’s 1930 novel/play runs in repertory at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake through October 14th. Eda Holmes directs a cast of twenty-six. The play, with its single intermission, runs roughly 2 ½ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: (courtesy of Wikipedia) The musical focuses on events taking place over the course of a weekend in an elegant hotel in 1928 Berlin. We follow the intersecting stories of the eccentric guests of the hotel, including a fading prima ballerina; a fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper, who wants to spend his final days living in luxury; a young, handsome, but destitute Baron; a cynical doctor; an honest businessman gone bad, and a typist dreaming of Hollywood success.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: The finished product now playing at the Shaw had a long and complicated gestation, over a period of more than 30 years! This version, with its book by Luther Davis, its music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, and supplemented by Maury Yeston, was shepherded by Tommy Tune, who eventually won Tony awards for both his direction and choreography. Tune decided to steer the property back toward Ms. Baum’s original, jettisoning some elements of the classic M-G-M version (1932) with Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford. While I do like the old, star studded, Oscar winning movie, I think it best to approach the stage musical as a completely separate entity.
The Luther Davis book is sturdy, and runs like a well-oiled machine under the careful supervision of director Holmes. How close it is to the original Baum novel and play I cannot say, having had no truck with either of them. Wright and Forrest, the veteran team that made a living adapting (some might say stealing) melodies from the great classical composers and providing them with lyrics (ie: KISMET (Borodin), SONG OF NORWAY (Grieg) and ANYA (Rachmaninov)) show here why they used to rely on those wonderful classical melodies. Not that Maury Yeston, responsible for more than a third of the score, has done much better. The title song does have a properly downbeat, CABARET-like quality to it, I’ll admit. The big love ballad, “Love Can’t Happen” (another Yeston) is very nice, but “borrows” melodically from a great BRIGADOON one, “From This Day On”.
Happily, Shaw production is blessed with strong performances in the various key roles. While James Daly’s Baron is a little on the callow side, he gives it everything he’s got, including a terrific set of pipes. His last number, “Roses At The Station”, is his best, really heartbreaking. Deborah Hay’s fading ballerina, Grushinskaya, is pretty much perfection, and Michael Therriault, who wowed us last year as the lead in ME AND MY GIRL, does it once again as Otto Kringlelein, the dying Jewish bookkeeper. Has this guy got range! Kudos also to Vanessa Sears as Flaemmchen, the typist in the cold water flat who dreams of Hollywood stardom. She is just magnetic here, even managing to make a big winner of her mediocre solo number, “Girl In The Mirror”. Though I sometimes have trouble with the color-blind casting the Shaw favors these days, the choice of Ms. Sears was, I feel, quite inspired. Also praiseworthy: James Turvey’s good-guy-goes-wrong businessman, Preysing; Patty Jamieson’s long-suffering companion, Raffaela; and the sinewy, ultra-graceful dancing of Matt Nethersole.
Good miking insures that all the solo lines and lyrics are fully intelligible.
The set by Judith Bowden, with its chandelier and tall reflective columns, is simple but elegant, and changes dramatically in character with Kevin Fraser’s many-faceted lighting. A bare bones, rotatable, free standing set piece, representing the lobby bar, is used to great effect in the spirited ensemble number, “We’ll Take a Glass Together”. Good miking insures that all the solo lines and lyrics are fully intelligible. It is only in the group numbers that the (generally nothing special) lyrics get muddied, lost. Other production values, including costumes, choreography and the pit orchestra, are up to the Shaw’s usual high standards.
IN SUM: Strong, multi-stranded, character drama (unusual in musicals) executed by several top notch performers puts this GRAND HOTEL in the winner’s circle. If the score had been a couple of notches stronger, this might have gotten the full five buffalos. Even with its rather pedestrial one, HOTEL rates a solid
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!