“Good evening. Grand Hotel. How can I help you?”
“I’m a patron seated in Row G, and I was wondering, can I please get an intermission?”
“No, I’m so sorry ma’am. There’s no intermission here at the Grand Hotel. Our show is one hour and 50 minutes long, and you’ll just have to–”
Intermission is so passé that the team behind Signature Theatre’s stylish revival of a 11-time Tony-nominated Broadway musical has eliminated the restroom break. 90-minute plays have been en vogue for some time, but Grand Hotel takes the keep-butts-in-seats trend to another level. At the performance I attended, multiple patrons abandoned the show for the restroom, the bar, or both. (One guy returned carrying a tray of drinks; another lady hissed loudly that she really had to go.)
Sitting through a 1 hour, 50 minute show after dinner can be a challenge. And intermission serves other purposes besides a potty break: It provides audiences with 15 minutes of suspense, during which theaters can sell drinks.
By running Grand Hotel without an intermission, director Eric Schaeffer not only eliminated a revenue stream, he cut significant plot markers in a show that lacks a strong storyline. He and music director Jon Kalbfleisch also ratchet up the tempos and hurry from song to song with nary a break between numbers. The goal must be to keep the show moving, reflecting the bustling lobby where the action of Grand Hotel occurs. But these characters need time to drop their bags for a minute, to linger like plume of smoke drifting slowly from the tip of a flapper’s long cigarette.
Grand Hotel is a musical about the pursuit of elegance, set in swanky Berlin at the peak of inter-war prosperity. Luther David, Robert Wright, and George Forrest based their 1989 show on a 1929 Viennese novel that also inspired a 1932 Best Picture winner. On opening night, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo stepped out of limousines wearing furs and signed a guest book outside’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where MGM recreated the hotel’s front desk for newsreel cameras and adoring crowds.
At Signature, the desk is front and center in a black box theater, flanked on either side by winding staircases. Some action takes place in rooms, but theatergoers are asked to imagine the changes of locale, with a bit of help from a bar that drops from the rafters, and a scullery that pushes forward down one aisle.
All the mezzanine railings are decked out in faux-art deco ironwork and sconces. Paul Tate DePoo III designed the stunning set, although the lighting, by Colin K. Bills, is often too dim and the fog machines frequently billow at full blast.
The cast members, when you can see them, are outstanding. This is an ensemble show, and eight of the first nine numbers are spent introducing audiences to the characters and their various life crises. There’s a ballerina on her farewell tour (Natascia Diaz), her assistant beset by creepy unrequited love (Crystal Mosser), a businessman attempting to negotiate a merger (Kevin McAllister), his typist who aspires to be a movie star (Nicki Elledge), a baron racking up room service debt (Nkrumah Gatling), and a terminally ill bookkeeper (Bobby Smith) who is determined to spend his life savings in style.
By the time these fine performers finish introducing themselves via a song, we’re 45 minutes into the show, there’s still no plot, and the program still says “no intermission.” A second round of songs allows the characters’ stories to intertwine while a throwaway narrator (Lawrence Redmond) offers vague commentary and additional melodrama in the form of a doctor addicted to morphine.
The melodies aren’t memorable, which is not a prerequisite for a musical but would improve this one. There are just six musicians and a conductor in the orchestra, and all the string parts are synthesized in a production that would benefit from sustained fermatas played on an actual violin.
The actors, thankfully, are the genuine deal. Once again, Signature has found worthy parts for Smith and Diaz, who appear several times each season. Also of note are young graduates of Catholic University’s musical theater program, especially Elledge, who strikes a balance of naivety and pluck as the typist, a role originated by Jane Krakowski.
Choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise drew on period-specific dances like the Foxtrot and the Charleston. Like animated wallpaper, dancers stay busy in the background while central characters feud. These performers must end the show exhausted! I’d linger and applaud them loudly but there was no intermission and, well, it’s time to check out.
To May 18 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$102. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.