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There are only two chairs in Eric Schaeffer’s budget edition of Grand Hotel, and neither of them moves an inch. I mention this mostly because it’s such a contrast to the central staging conceit of Tommy Tune’s Broadway mounting, in which some 60 high-backed chairs were carried by the cast during the opening number, then arranged and endlessly rearranged to form suites, hallways, lobbies, bars, ballrooms, and even a train station.
Tune’s seat-based stratagem for that 1989 staging always looked to me like a rehearsal-hall design solution writ large. It was easy to picture a pre-Broadway workshop at which the show’s producers proposed budget cuts and the director realized he’d have to do without faux-marble columns, curved staircases, and potted palms in creating Europe’s most exclusive rooming establishment circa 1928. I imagined him despairing briefly, then looking around at his dancers, who were reclining, stretching, practicing extensions, or just plain sitting in rehearsal chairs arranged in a semicircle in that mirrored dance hall, andeureka!a staging concept was born.
Because Tune is an inventive choreographer, and because elaborate settings would doubtless have overwhelmed the slim character studies that Luther Davis’ script offers in lieu of a plot, the spareness worked pretty well on Broadway. Something different is clearly called for, however, in Signature Theatre’s more intimate space, and Schaeffer, for his part, has come up with some reasonably inventive notions.
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His audiences walk down a red-carpeted hallway from the theater lobby to a hotel lobby that James Kronzer has created entirely from gilded ceiling moldings, polished floors, and neon-framed doorways. At the entrance to the auditorium, white-gloved bellhopsnot ushersgreet theatergoers with a cheery “Welcome to Grand Hotel,” much as they will soon welcome the guests who arrive through that same door during the opening number. Dry-ice fog lends the low-ceilinged space a smoky, ’20s ambiance, while lights submerged in the floor shine upward, highlighting the actors’ cheek hollows and eye sockets and giving their faces a ghostly pallor.
When the lights brighten after this introduction, the hotel guests are revealed as a cross-section of European high society just before the crash. Stock portfolios brimming, dreams not yet dashed, they are a motley crew of Old World aristocrats, pushy capitalists, secretaries who dream of Hollywood stardom, and fading ballerinas with retinues of servants. Their hosts are similarly diverse: a chorus of resentful scullery workers and chirpy receptionists, captained by a closeted concierge who lusts after a timid desk clerk whose wife is giving birth at a nearby hospital but who is too afraid of losing his job to ask for time off to be with her.
Based on Vicki Baum’s best-selling 1929 novel, which was adapted as a star-studded film vehicle for the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and John and Lionel Barrymore, the musical Grand Hotel is not an obvious choice for Signature. A fair-to-middling hit that played for more than two years on Broadway, it’s hardly the sort of misunderstood flop célèbre that the company has previously delighted in rescuing from oblivion. Its score is adequate but unremarkable, with a couple of standout ballads that might not stand out quite so much were they in a better show. Its book is pedestrian, its plot developments uniformly clichéd.
Still, its debits would seem to play to Schaeffer’s staging strengths. The director is most in his element when breathing emotional life into essentially chilly works, and despite its soap-opera-ish structure, Grand Hotel is as chilly as they come. The story centers on a dashing but penniless baron (Will Gartshore) who works the hotel crowd hoping to pay off his debts. A basically decent guy, he takes an unworldly, desperately ill accountant (Michael Sharp) under his wing, flirts with a pretty secretary (Deanna Harris), and looks down his nose at a failing businessman (Ty Hreben), even as his creditors circle menacingly. When a thug suggests a little larcenyan aging ballerina (Patricia Pearce Gentry) has a diamond necklace that would go a long way toward settling the baron’s debtshe reluctantly goes along, only to find his emotions getting the better of him. “Love can’t happen quite so quickly,” he croons when the ballerina catches him in the act of rifling through her jewelry drawerand he means it.
But I’m making this sound much more linear than it plays. For every scene that furthers the central plot, composer-lyricists Robert Wright, George Forrest, and Maury Yeston seem to have felt obligated to provide a couple of sung vignettes illuminating the tribulations of lesser characters. Sweat-soaked kitchen laborers pop in at odd moments to clatter pots and sing that “every bum and bitch is getting rich.” A pair of African-American bartenders rehearse the jazzy little ditty they vainly hope will make them stage celebs. A disfigured, morphine-addicted doctor who functions as the evening’s narrator (he shoots up as the show is getting underway, so that eerily lit opening number is his hallucination) kibitzes sourly from the sidelines. The ballerina’s dresser laments a life lived, in more ways than one, in the closet. And when all this woe bogs things down too much, everyone dances a Charleston, for no other reason than that a production number seems in order.
Schaeffer makes everything run smoothly enough, with an understated assist from Karma Camp’s choreography, and an overstated one from Chris Lee’s beautiful but hyperactive lighting scheme. The musical
numbersably backed by Jon Kalbfleisch’s characteristically spiffy orchestrawork about as well as can be expected given that their emotions seem to come mostly out of nowhere. Blame the show’s episodic structure for that, rather than the performers, all of whom are every bit as full-voiced as they are capable thespians.
That said, a couple of them are laboring at something of a disadvantage. I’m not a big believer in physical literalism in casting, especially in musicals, but at close quarters, that willing-suspension-of-disbelief thing gets difficult when a production veers too far from what the script calls for. In the May-December romance that lies at the emotional heart of this production, neither the baron nor the ballerina look much like what they claim to be. Gartshore has a glorious voice, but he’s a brash, young all-American type who looks about as likely to have inherited a baronial estate as Brad Pitt does. And although Gentry is a fine actress, she’s neither spry nor svelte enough to be persuasive as a still-active ballerina. When, after a night of lovemaking, he admits to being 31, and she to being 53…well, let’s just say that they each appear to be enough on the far sides of those figures that a Ben-Mrs. Robinson pairing isn’t quite the image being conjured.
The other performances are pretty much what the doctor (a persuasively morphine-addled Steven Cupo) ordered. And the production is certainly crisp and passionately performedeven if it doesn’t make much of a case for Grand Hotel as an unjustly neglected classic. CP