By Luther Davis
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 23-October 14, 2018
This 1989 musical, based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel and the all-star MGM film of 1932, won 5 Tonys and ran for 1,107 performances, mainly because of Tommy Tune’s brilliant direction and choreography which earned two of those Tonys. Alas, the Shaw Festival version isn’t very grand, nor is the hotel much to write home about. Of course, it is a schematic musical because (as Ken Tynan reminded us in an old film review), like many old-fashioned extravaganzas, the story and characters are confined in cubicles or rooms or (if at sea) cabins, and characters are thrown together or, wander around, at any rate, in the same environment, whether this be an aeroplane, ship, bus, or island. Grand Hotel is set in Weimar Berlin but this is not quite the Berlin of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (a far superior musical because of far superior Isherwood source material and technical accomplishments from set, lighting, and music to choreography and acting), though the music and lyrics pay some homage to Kurt Weill and German jazz and director Eda Holmes probably desperately wishes it were Kander and Ebb. Without the seedy, devilishly seductive rogue-emcee of Cabaret, she gives us (with the collaborative performance of Steven Sutcliffe) a seriously crippled drug addict of a Colonel-Doctor who limps around on what could well be at least one wooden leg while sounding deliberately ironic: “People come and people go. Nothing ever happens.” Well, true on at least one count, though what really happens in this instance is a largely boring failure.
The crucial element in the story is the ease with which it interweaves characters and stories from different strata of society. There is the industrialist Preysing (Jay Turvey), whose shady tactics are catching up with him. His secretary Flaemmchen (Vanessa Sears) has Hollywood stars in her eyes and is more than willing to sell her glam body for stardom. Then there are the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) who is desperate to revive her fading career, and her loyal personal aide Raffaele (Patty Jameson) who has more than a platonic affection for her employer. The ballerina comes to life when she meets a charming young Baron (James Daly) who for all his dash is a rather broke jewel-thief. This mixture of sociology and romantic danger is complemented by a dash of comic pathos in the figure of the fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Michael Therriault) who is determined to have a wild fling with adventure at the hotel before death claims him. An assortment of very busy and noisy telephone operators and a corps of hotel maids, bellhops, chauffeur, scullery worker, courtesan, and two Jimmys round out the ensemble, along with a nervous young assistant concierge Erik (Travis Seetoo) who is an expectant father-to-be.
The Broadway original had all the dash, sass, verve, and vigour of an American musical, with a spectacular double-decker set and a staircase to rival those in Hello, Dolly or Gone with the Wind. In other words, the decadence was divine for the concoction of lust, love, deception, and doom. At the Shaw, Judith Bowden’s design wants to thrive on decadence without the divine. Her largely empty set seems deconstructed, with chairs either suspended mid-air or upturned on the floor where a chandelier also lies, and Kevin Fraser’s lighting is adapted to the general gloom, though, thankfully, it recovers for the big show-stopping numbers. But, truly, these are few and far between because there is really only a single outstanding male dancer (Matt Nethersole) and two female ones (Kiera Sangster and Vanessa Sears). As for the singing, nothing really hit the heights, apart from Sears’s life-affirming “Girl in the Mirror,” though Hay (terribly miscast visually and physically as the despondent ballerina) is touchingly wistful in her solo “Bonjour Amour.”
The general acting is cliched and rather empty, and I was mainly bored with the show, though Michael Therriault as the old, suffering Jew with a heart of gold, provides small relief as he repeats some of his highly praised and practised physical clowning from last season’s justly celebrated Me and My Girl. He is funny without being truly moving, but his very drunken, rubbery-legged “We’ll Take a Glass Together” (with support from the Baron, the Jimmys, and the Company) is a definite relief in this mediocre hotel, where banalities thrive in the shallows of creative imagination.