Through October 14
GRAND HOTEL Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
By Augustine Warner
It’s Dickensian, that line from “A Tale of Two Cities” of “the best of times and the worse of times,” that could just as easily apply to the Berlin of 1928 in “Grand Hotel.”
Outside this overnight palace, there was a civil war on the streets, eventually leading to Adolf Hitler’s putsch.
Inside, it was a life of luxury for those who had the marks to pay.
There were doormen, waiters, cleaning crews, the maître d’, front desk workers and formally dressed bosses to keep the customers happy and willing to pay what were probably exorbitant bills.
They are all willing to dance across the stage under Parker Esse’s choreography on Judith Bowden’s glorious set, a towering marble gastronomy of mirrors, columns and chandeliers and rolling stairways to keep the story moving.
The musical’s story is convoluted, Vicki Baum’s German novel, “Menschen im Hotel,” turned into a Broadway show and MGM movie “Grand Hotel,” with Greta Garbo and turned into this musical, with Luther Davis contributing the script and Robert Wright and George Forrest kicking in the music and lyrics.
It’s a tribute to the depth of the Shaw Festival’s costume warehouse and the skill of the festival’s backstage people that cast members can wear so many costumes and change them so fast, as the significantly larger than usual orchestra pounds away on that boundary line between the waltzes of Habsburg Vienna and the European arrival of “Le Jazz Hot” from America and the dancers who carried the moves to go along with the rhythms, particularly Kiera Sangster and Matt Nethersole’s Jimmys.
Holding this all together is Steven Sutcliffe’s hopelessly addicted Colonel-Doctor, whose mind and body have never recovered from World War I, letting him swirl through the activities of the Grand Hotel, with a jaundiced eye and the isolation of his PTSD.
He’s not the only casualty of the war.
There’s also Baron von Gaigern (James Daly), who has a great title and no money, perhaps lost in the economic disaster of the post-war years in Germany.
The money issue is why the baron is in hock to a moneylender with a seriously tough collector,
On the other end of the line is the dying Otto Kringelein (Michael Therriault), who has sold everything to spend his last days in luxury.
Hermann Preysing (Jay Turvey) is there, manager of a major paper mill, who is in the middle of a merger with a Boston company to save his company, and Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) a renowned ballerina who is (way) past her prime but still out on the road because she needs the money, accompanied by her amanuensis Raffaela (Patty Jamieson), who is clearly in love with the dancer.
Of course, there are little people, the bellhop (David Andrew Reid) whose wife is in labor but he can’t leave because he would come back to unemployment.
The concocters tie this all together, with the baron trying to steal from the ballerina, only to fall in love with her, the company director falling in with thieves when his deal falls through and he takes off for the U.S. with Flaemmchen (Vanessa Sears) and Otto enjoying that last fling.
It’s mostly thoroughly implausible, although thoroughly well done under Eda Holmes’ direction.
Behind this story of life among the rich and famous is a musical, with a lot of good music and some pretty good singing and ensemble work.
That ranges from the long opening “Grand Parade” to the Jimmys‘ “Maybe My Baby” to Flaemmchen and admirers’ “Girl in the Mirror” to Grushinskaya’s “Bonjour Amour” to the Baron’s “Roses at the Station.”
The cast is filled with strong performances, like Turvey’s Preysing, Daly’s Baron, Therriault’s Otto and Sutcliffe’s wonderfully world-weary Colonel-Doctor.
“Grand Hotel” can fill anyone’s fantasy, the pleasures of the wealth to stay in such a hotel to feeling sorry for the elves who make the hotel work, the sense of future adventure in jazz.
We know what they didn’t.
It’s early in the Shaw season but the crowd in the Festival Theatre suggests the advance word is out that this is an early season “must see.”
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