KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 14, 1991
I’m tempted to call it “The Bland Hotel.” It’s as if some wayward Kansas tornado lifted this large, sumptuous New York construction and plopped it down at the Civic Theatre intact. For me, it’s another one of those vapid, vacant but elaborate concoctions that’s been passing for a musical on Broadway and in London’s West End for years. In other words, I’d say that, although there’s a lot of hustle and bustle and hubbub at The Grand Hotel, basically, no one’s home.
This piece has been a theatrical fascination for years. First, there was Vicki Baum’s best-selling novel of 1929, then her play, then MGM’s 1932 version, a star-turn for Garbo, the Barrymore brothers, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery. Then came unsung 1945 and 1959 remakes, the latter from West Germany. Vicki Baum reportedly thought that Tommy Tune’s 1989 winner of five Tony Awards came closest to her conception.
There are at least five interwoven stories as people and music waft in and out of an opulent hotel in decadent 1928 Berlin. Everyone just wants one more chance: the debt-ridden Baron turned cat-burglar; the aging ballerina; the dying Jewish accountant; the pert little secretary who dreams of Hollywood; the hotel administrator about to be ousted for mis-management; the cynical doctor, who examines everything and feels compelled to tell the audience about what he and we plainly observe.
We get little glimpses of everyone. Not enough for real character development. But enough for each to get a musical number or two so the highly creative Tommy Tune can strut his award-winning choreographic stuff. As per usual in these humongously expensive, big-hit productions, the technical work is far more heavy-weight than the music.
The elegant chandeliers drop down over the ornate, gilt-and-glass hotel lobby designed by Tony Walton. The lighting and costume help to re-create an era. The dancing is marvelous. And really, so are the performers. There’s just so little for them to sink more than their feet into. But there is lots of unrelated, unnecessary bits of junk tossed around, as if every kind of graft and scandal is needed to show just how decadent Berlin was at the time:
Two poorly motivated homosexual encounters — one for each gender; one sexually abusive man; two blackmail schemes; one murder; several thefts. Etcetera, etcetera. Despite the excesses, Luther Davis’ book would be bearable, if only the music were memorable. Yes, that’s the plight of the modern musical. You forget the songs while you’re listening to them.
Robert Wright, George Forrest and Maury Yeston are the culprits this time; absolutely nothing to go out humming, let alone to want to hear again. This is a play you have to watch, not listen to. Which is fine, since the acoustics at the Civic don’t make it easy to discern any lyrics anyway.
So you focus on the look of things, and the marvelous grace of the real former ballerina Liliane Montevecchi. Or Brent Barrett as a dashing Baron, and Mark Baker a likable little schlep of an accountant.
Understudy Susan Wood does a delightful turn as Flaemmchen, the love-torn secretary. And those two dancing-singing Jimmys, Nathan Gibson and David Andrew White, are a kick.
Least necessary, perhaps, is the Doctor, who winds up the play with a spew of platitudes that’s really embarrassing. “One life ends while another begins…. The revolving door turns and turns and life goes on.”. Who wrote those lines? Some errant fourth grader on a punishment assignment? Oh well, you don’t come to musicals like this for message and meaning. It’s all in the spectacle. And in “The Grand Hotel,” thankfully, it all waltzes past you in one intermissionless act.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.