Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Evan Hanover
Step into the space at Theatre Wit for Kokandy Theatre’s production of Grand Hotel and you are transported somewhere elegant. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Beautiful architecture and twin balconies overlook a sparse but stylish hotel lobby. A pianist plays on a white piano, accompanied by a violinist. Everything about Jeffrey Kmiec’s set design screams “opulence,” and that is the point: the year is 1928 and, in Berlin, the place to go is the Grand Hotel. It is a time of prosperity, when the affluent flaunt the wealth they have amassed and the poor dream of better times ahead or become angry at the disparity between the monied and non-monied classes. It is the year before the stock market crash, before a worldwide depression and then a World War, when decadence was celebrated. Grand Hotel shares the time period with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, and though songwriters Robert Wright, George Forrest, Maury Yeston and book writer Luther Davis concentrate here on a venue far upscale from the Kit Kat Klub, their Grand Hotel is equally unable to ward off the changes coming in its world.
All of this, though, seems far away as you enter the theatre. The first reminder that things may not be perfect is the opening dumb scene in which Colonel Doctor (Jerry Miller), an occasional narrator for the piece, ties himself off and injects some heroin to ease his pain. He is a man, he tells us, who is “alive but wish(es) to be dead,” and as such he mimics the hotel in which he sits, a living place on the verge of hidden economic collapse. Another clue of this impending doom is the character of Baron Felix Von Gaigern (played by Erik Dohner, an impressive baritone from DePaul’s School of Music), a free-spending, woman-chasing member of the upper class who is himself almost dead broke. (Throughout the play, he is pestered and threatened by a menacing character played by Pavil Proczko who works for a man to whom the Baron owes a lot of money.)
The breakdown of the beautiful people is further exemplified by the plight of dancer Elizaveta Grushinskaya (a brilliant Michelle Jasso), traveling with three employees including the wonderful Liz Norton as the Italian Rafaella, who finds herself (in her eighth “farewell tour”) unexpectedly stumbling onstage, no longer able to do the things she once did with ease. Elizaveta, like the Baron, is seriously living beyond her means, even considering hocking a prized necklace in order to pay members of her company. In addition to her ill fortune, we are introduced to Hermann Preysing (Jeremy Trager), the company director of a large corporation who has fallen so low that his board is prepared to fire him if he can’t come through with a merger. In the Grand Hotel, the mightly are preparing to fall.
Into this mix come two unlikely people: a typist looking for a film career who has recently nicknamed herself “Flaemmschen” (the luminous Leryn Turlington, who lights up the stage with her singing and dancing) and a dying old Jew named Otto Kringelein (Jonathan Schwart) who has sold everything he owns for the chance to live large at the Grand once before he dies. Both of these characters befriend the Baron, who is (despite his own flaws) in a position to help them both out. He also meets Elizaveta, and the 27-year-old Baron and the 49-year-old dancer somehow fall immediately in love, he attracted to her maturity and beauty and she to his youth and vitality.
In the background, the workers in the hotel, including three angry dishwashers, telephone operators, a maid, porters, the desk clerk, and a bellhop named Erik (Parker Guidry), who is awaiting the birth of his first child but cannot afford to stop working, sing of the vitriol they feel about the chasm between the upper and lower classes (like today, growing larger each day) while patrons drink champagne and cavort and dance.
The choreography is dynamic and original. Tommy Tune won Best Choreographer on Broadway for this show, and this production shows off Brenda Didier’s abilities to the same degree. I found myself watching the background dancers on many occasions just because they were so entertaining, despite the fact that lighting designer Alexander Ridgers made it easy to keep the focus where director John D. Glover wanted it. Glover’s direction here is deft; along with Didier, he keeps things gliding smoothly along from moment to moment and scene to scene, and the many characters of this musical are clearly defined from the outset so that we can concentrate on their arcs as the story progresses. (This is also a compliment to costumer John Nasca.) And Aaron Benham’s three-piece orchestra fills the theatre with lovely music.
The acting and singing here are stellar throughout. Schwart is especially strong as a dying man finding new life in a place whose opulence will soon be fading. Turlington’s irrepressible character is a joy. Jasso and Dohner, together and separately, capture their once-grand and currently struggling characters beautifully and with little sentimentality. Guidry is ebullient as the new father. You can practically watch Norton’s heart breaking over Elizaveta’s loss of status. “Two Jimmys,” Darren Patin and Travis Austin Wright, are energetic and effusive as a couple of African American dancers who entertain at the Grand. Trager is downright creepy as Preysing, and Proczko makes a fine villain. And there is always the enigmatic Doctor, Miller, ready with commentary on the side.
Kokandy’s Grand Hotel is just about perfect in every possible way. It’s hard to find adequate words when every aspect of the show is outstanding. Whether depicting the intemperance of the upper classes, highlighting the struggle of the lower class, or showcasing some fine actors and dynamite performances, this play simply works. I was mesmerized from start to finish, and that doesn’t happen all that often.
Grand Hotel is a Kokandy Theatre production now playing at Theatre Wit through May 27. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Kokandy Productions.