Thursday, 6 August 2015

Theatre review: Grand Hotel

After a number of big musical hits there, director Thom Southerland returns to Southwark Playhouse with another musically complex ensemble drama, though I liked this one a lot better than 2013's Titanic: Based on Vicki Baum's book Menschen Im Hotel, Grand Hotel has a book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, and additional songs by Maury Yeston. The setting is 1928 Berlin, a time of a huge gap between rich and poor, as the deferential staff of the hotel harbour a lot of angry resentment towards their wealthy guests. But if the guests we meet over the two hours are anything to go by, they actually have a lot more front than they do money. At the centre of the cast of characters is Baron von Gaigern (Scott Garnham,) who coasts by on charm and everyone's assumption that with titles come money and power, but is in fact broke.

In theory he repays his creditors by stealing from the other guests, but in practice he can't bring himself to do it. His fatal flaw is, as another character points out, that he's a nobleman who's actually noble, and he sees how many of his fellow guests are in as dire straits as he is.

They include Elizaveta Grushinskaya, a warm performance from Christine Grimandi as a ageing prima ballerina who's had more farewell tours than Cher, and has reached the point where the audiences no longer show up. For decades she's failed to spot that her mannish assistant Raffaela (Valerie Cutko) is in love with her, and instead ends up in an unlikely romance with the younger Baron. This dashes the hopes of Flaemmchen (Victoria Serra,) one of the hotel's on-call typists but dreaming of Hollywood stardom: With the Baron no longer an option, she latches onto American businessman Hermann Preysing (Jacob Chapman,) but he too is more troubled than he appears.

The only guest with actual cash is the one the hotel initially tried to turn away: Consumptive Jew Otto Krigelein (George Rae) has cashed in everything he owns on finding out he hasn't got long to live, and checked into the Grand Hotel for a taste of the life he feels he missed out on. Forrest, Wright and Yeston's music is of the storytelling variety rather than instantly memorable, but does boast a couple of big showstoppers, usually involving Garnham's Baron - "Love Can't Happen" with Grushinskaya, "We'll Take a Glass Together" with Krigelein, and his climactic solo "Roses at the Station." The amount of stuff going on simultaneously means not every story always feels developed - it took me a while to realise the Baron was meant to be earnest about his feelings for the ballerina, and that strand never quite convinced me.

I was also unconvinced by the ending Southerland's given the piece, in which the staff rise up against the guests - I wasn't sure how strongly it was meant to suggest the rise of the Nazis in the years following this story, and if a climactic special effect can't really be done properly in the small space, it might be best not done at all. But those are really the only criticisms I have of the production, which uses the multiple storylines to create a huge amount of energy and pace on Lee Newby's simple traverse set, with lively choreography by Lee Proud. I think I liked this more than Jan, who said he felt it redeemed itself in the last 20 minutes: I was caught up in its doomed storylines and the enthusiasm of the production from much earlier than that. It's well-sung and with likeable performances, especially from Grimandi, Rae and Serra and, with the wise decision to play it without an interval, its running time flies by in a flurry of energy.

Grand Hotel by Luther Davis, George Forrest, Robert Wright and Maury Yeston, based on Menschen Im Hotel by Vicki Baum, is booking until the 5th of September at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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