Tommy Tune's masterpiece, Grand Hotel, checked in for a return visit at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre this week. Grand Hotel was one of the last musicals to open on Broadway in 1989 and ran for 1,077 performances. While it lost out to City of Angels (another show which used ultra-fluid direction to achieve cinematic effects) for the Best Musical Tony, Tommy Tune picked up two more awards for his brilliant direction and choreography. Thankfully, both are perfectly re-created in this production, which will also be playing at Houston's Theater Under the Stars in October. To say that the show is primarily a triumph of stagecraft is not a slam, nor is it meant to belittle the show itself. Grand Hotel is, quite frankly, an incredible feat of direction and choreography and should be seen by anybody who has any interest in either art form.
Based on a book by Vicki Baum (which also inspired the classic film starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore), Grand Hotel portrays a day in the life of the Grand Hotel of Berlin in 1928 and six of the residents who pass through its door. As befits the era, it is done so in a Brecht-ian/Weill manner where symbolism rules, a disfigured, opium-ridden narrator directly addresses the audience, and the working class engine which drives the posh community is shown in all its grime and labor. As befits Tommy Tune, it is done through non-stop movement, music and staging. The lives of the residents mingle and interweave, and their stories and songs do so as well. This is not a story told linearly, with songs and scenes performed in their entirety. Instead, the stories are fragmented, and rely on lighting (which also won a Tony) and movement to focus your attention.
This is not to say that Grand Hotel does not have wonderful characters or actors. Since the stories are mainly about loss (loss of honor, love, life and dreams), they form a rich, if intense, tapestry. Liliane Montevecchi, who originated the part of the ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya on Broadway, for which she received a Tony Nomination, returns to the Grand Hotel and gives a brilliant performance. It is hard to believe that she is not the "49 years and 49 months" of the character, as she has the energy (and indeed the body) of a woman much younger. She is incredible as the fading ballerina, who is rejuvenated, however briefly, through the love of a younger man, the Baron/Jewel Thief Felix Von Gaigern, played by David Hess. David has an incredible voice and sings the part of the Baron better than anybody I had previously heard. He also brings a wonderful sense of grandeur and poise to the part, as befits a Baron (even a penniless one). Unfortunately, he is quite a bit older than the "29 years and 29 months" that the script mentions, which made the May/December romance closer to August/December, especially given Liliane's youthful exuberance.
Jill Powell (best known, according to her bio, as "the lying, cheating, husband and baby stealing Marcy Breen-Lafferty on CBS' As the World Turns) was a knockout as Flaemmchen, the typist who dreams of Hollywood and is willing to do just about anything to get there. In a Carol Haney-esque turn, Bill Bateman took over for the part of the dying bookkeeper, Otto Kringelein. Apparently, the regular performer woke up with a viral infection of the larynx, and Bill went on with almost no rehearsal time, giving an almost flawless performance.
The music and lyrics, by Robert Wright and George Forrest (with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, who was brought in by Tommy Tune to do some doctoring ... hence the reason behind there being two songbooks for the show) are greatly benefited by prior exposure. It is one of the few shows which almost necessitates previous listenings, as the interwoven and overlapping of songs and lines means that information gets lost otherwise. It is also a show that grows with each viewing and listening, as more details and layers come into focus.
Grand Hotel runs in Seattle through October 3, before moving to Houston. For ticket information call (206) 292-ARTS