Grandeur of a Golden Age in “Grand Hotel” at the Signature Theatre

photoBroadway music mixes with tragicomedy at the “Grand Hotel” (Photo: Signature Theatre)

The Grand Hotel, both in the Broadway musical of that name and the 1932 film on which it is based,  symbolizes quite simply the continuous cycle of life. People enter into a world of luxury; new friends, acquaintances, and lovers step in with personal stories and vignettes; the sojourners then leave the Grand Hotel to face the real world once more.

This cycle continues as though nothing has changed, or as the musical’s Doctor-Narrator puts it: “One life ends while another begins.” A character “who could not help being noble” dies while a son is born to one of the staff of the Grand Hotel.  The cycle of life goes onwards . . .

There are five, arguably six, separate plotlines in “Grand Hotel,” the musical being performed currently at Arlington’s Signature Theatre under the excellent direction of Eric Schaeffer.  Perhaps the most poignant of these plots might call to mind “Last Holiday,” the 2006 film starring Queen Latifah in which she plays a character who thinks she is going to die. She decides to spend her savings on a glorious few final weeks at a luxury hotel in Prague. “Grand Hotel” is not post-Communist Prague, but rather Berlin in the late Weimar Republic, as the sound of the encroaching Third Reich may be heard in the distance by those who can discern.

Bobby Smith plays Otto Kringelein, whose diagnosis of a terminal illness urges him to check out of a sanitarium and into the Grand Hotel. He displays a joie de vivre – Kringelein wants to live, notes Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag (Lawrence Redmond), whereas our doctor-narrator (exposed to mustard gas and riddled with shrapnel during the First World War) merely wants to die. Mr. Smith is a very talented actor indeed, for he displays simultaneously marks of Otto’s illness with a love for dancing and for life itself, especially in the routine “Who Couldn’t Dance with You.” Kringelein is a tragicomic figure in many ways: Though he is represented as a comic character, his understanding of life deepens as he approaches his own mortality. Without betraying too much of the plot, we can say Kringelein discovers “life is in people, not buildings,” not even in a building with as much grandeur as the Grand Hotel. He leaves perhaps to die, but also probably to witness a birth. Onwards charges the cycle of life . . .

Brilliant scenic design

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The grandeur of “a golden time” comes to life in “Grand Hotel” (Photo: Signature Theatre)

The brilliant scenic design by Paul Tate Depoo III for Signature’s “Grand Hotel” gives the audience the feeling of enjoying a stay in an elite luxurious hotel vicariously during “a golden time,” to quote the Signature Theatre Program Notes.  The ceiling is Art Nouveau (we should instead use the term Jugendstil, since “this is Germany,” as the stenographer and would-be actress Flaemmchen reminds two Americans working in Berlin).  Art Deco patterns dominate the floor, often to be lit up for Broadway numbers of the show such as “Maybe My Baby Loves Me” (danced superbly by Ian Anthony Coleman, Solomon Parker III, and Nicki Elledge).

Also stylistically evocative of a bygone era are effective props dropping from the ceiling, including period-style phones and a neon bar of light (serving then as a bar for mixed drinks). As Flaemmchen says, “Something is so modern, so 1928 about it” all.  The expert choreography of Kelly Crandall d’Amboise conveys the 20’s theme well, such as a tango and a Charleston (it being the Grand Hotel, the latter number is called “The Grand Charleston”). The dancers as well as a band of seven musicians conducted by Evan Rees are up to this retro music challenge.

Nkrumah Gatling is in fine form as the impoverished Baron Felix von Gaigern – he is one of the best actors of this “Grand Hotel” coterie, and his delivery of his solo song “Roses at the Station” is strong and clear with a depth of range.  Natascia Diaz as the Baron’s love interest Elizaveta Grushinskaya (an aging ballet dancer) and Kevin McAllister as his nemesis General Director Preysing also execute their acting and singing parts admirably.

“Grand Hotel” captures a memorable moment in history — the fast pace of Berlin in the Weimar Republic, a short-lived era which was artistically dynamic but plagued with political and financial paralyses. It is an enjoyable show: a curious mixture of an upbeat musical with far more somber themes and complex plot development.

While the vintage film is celebrated widely, even receiving the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1932, the stage musical is less well-known and not often performed.  It is recommended that local theater-goers see this production, for “time is running out,” to quote Flaemmchen and other “Grand Hotel” characters: the final performance at Arlington’s Signature Theatre is slated for May 19. Please visit the website www.sigtheatre.org/events/2018-19/grand-hotel/ for performance dates and times.

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About the Author

Mark Dreisonstok
Mark Dreisonstok is a professor, editor, writer, and translator in the Washington, D.C., area. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University and an M.A. from the University of Freiburg, Germany.