Review: A Sumptuous But Flawed ‘Grand Hotel’ at Encores!
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, March 27, 2018
In 1989, the musical Grand Hotel held an out-of-town tryout in Boston before heading to Broadway. I saw that production, and can thereby attest that the show at that point was grim and flat, owing to mostly colorless score by Robert Wright and George Forrest (Kismet) and the plodding, unfocused book by Luther Davis (Kismet).
Director/choreographer Tommy Tune knew that the foundation for his Grand Hotel was shaky, and, shortly after I saw the production, brought in composer/lyricist Maury Yeston (Nine) to add some life to the score and librettist Peter Stone to tighten and sharpen the book. The show that reached New York represented a major overhaul, and wound up running for more than 1,000 performances.
Despite the Yeston/Stone makeover, the renovated Grand Hotel represented a triumph of Tommy Tune’s staging over the material itself. In fact, Tune won Tony Awards for both direction and choreography, while City of Angels picked up the awards that year for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical. Of course, awards don’t always reflect the truth, but in this case the breakdown represented an accurate summation: Grand Hotel was expertly staged, but City of Angels was by far better crafted as a piece. After its Broadway run, Grand Hotel pretty much disappeared, apart from a few short-lived productions in London.
This season, the folks at Encores! at New York City Center decided to present Grand Hotel as part of the organization’s current season. The result is about as sumptuous a staging as Encores! has ever presented, and about as polished a presentation as we’re likely to see of this show. Director/choreographer Josh Rhodes provides his own personal take on the material, although there are many nods to Tune’s production throughout. The staging is sharp, the pace is swift, and the physical production is dazzling, but, as was true of Tune’s efforts, they only serve to gloss over the inherent flaws in the piece.
One major liability remains the show’s spotty score. Maury Yeston contributed eight new songs, including the best one in the show, “Love Can’t Happen.” Overall, Yeston’s contributions give the score some much-needed sweep and grandeur. But that still leaves about twenty numbers by Wright and Forrest, and most of these are shapeless and dull, apart from charming “Who Couldn’t Dance With You?” and the life-affirming “We’ll Take a Glass Together.”
Despite Peter Stone’s efforts, the book to Grand Hotel remains diffuse, with far too many minor characters taking up valuable stage time, for example, a subplot about a bellhop, his pregnant wife, and his lascivious boss. The narration from a drug-addicted doctor and occasional commentary by a chorus of scullery workers, while colorful, are also superfluous.
Would that the book were spending more time developing the fascinating sextet of central characters: the dying bookkeeper Otto Kringelein, the impoverished Baron Von Gaigern, the penniless but ambitious typist Flaemmchen, the soon-to-be compromised businessman Hermann Preysing, the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, and her devoted confidante Raffaela.
That said, there are still moments of great joy to be found in Grand Hotel, most especially in the aforementioned “We’ll Take a Glass Together.” The ailing Otto Kringelein makes a toast to his new friend the Baron, and the chorus joins them in a rousing Charleston that never fails to bring me tears of joy, particular as performed by Tony Winner Michael Jeter on the Tony Awards broadcast that year. The Encores! version, performed by Brandon Uranowitz as Otto and James Snyder as the Baron, is only slightly less bouyant, but nonetheless a joy.
Uranowitz does an admirable job with the unenviable task of following Jeter’s absolutely indelible performance. The always charming and full-voiced James Snyder was alternately smarmy and heartfelt, as the part of the Baron required. Heléne Yorke, as Flaemmchen, is a terrific performer who can’t seem to catch a break: her two recent Broadway roles were in the short-lived Bullets Over Broadway and American Psycho. If there’s any justice in this business, both Snyder and Yorke will land their star-making roles very soon.
One weak link in the Encores! cast is classically-trained dancer Irina Dvorovenko as the ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. Dvorovenko was fine in the Encores! production of On Your Toes a few seasons back, but that was in a non-singing role. The Elizaveta role has a couple of fairly meaty songs, and let’s just say that, as a singer, Ms. Dvorovenko makes a terrific dancer.
There’s been considerable chatter online about moving the Encores! production of Grand Hotel to Broadway, or using it as a springboard to mount a full-scale revival. Count me among the loyal opposition. I’ll certainly see any production that comes to pass, but I honestly can’t say I’m champing at the bit.
Grand Hotel, The Musical presented by New York City Center’s Encores! at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, March 21-25, 2018. Running time: one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission. Book by Luther Davis; music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest; based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel; by arrangement with Turner Broadcasting Co., owner of the motion picture Grand Hotel; additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Encores! Artistic Director: Jack Viertel. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes; Encores! music director: Rob Berman.
Cast: Junior Cervila, John Clay III, Natascia Diaz, John Dossett, Irina Dvorovenko, Guadalupe Garcia, Nehal Joshi, James T. Lane, Jamie LaVerdiere, Eric Leviton, Robert Montano, Kevin Pariseau, William Ryall, James Snyder, Brandon Uranowitz, Daniel Yearwood, Heléne Yorke, Aaron J. Albano, Matt Bauman, Kate Chapman, Sara Esty, Hannah Florence, Richard Gatta, Emily Kelly, Andrew Kruep, Kelly Methven, Harris Milgrim, Adam Roberts, Christopher Trepinski, and Sharrod Williams.
Cover: (l. to r.) Irina Dvorovenko and James Snyder in ‘Grand Hotel;’ photo: Joan Marcus.