Grand Hotel at first seemed an odd choice for a revival by New York City Center’s Encores! The 1989 musical — based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel and the subsequent 1932 all-star cast MGM film — was a smash hit in its day, winning five Tony Awards (out of 12 nominations) and enjoying a run of 1,017 performances. Although the book and score were both excellent, the show was better known for Tommy Tune’s brilliant direction and choreography, which earned him two of those Tonys.
Cast any worries aside. This production directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes is a triumph. It could be moved lock, stock and barrel to Broadway tomorrow. Cast aside, too, any quibbles you may have heard from musical theater devotees carping about the lack of star power in the new staging. The original production itself featured an ensemble with no big names, unless you count a then relatively unknown Jane Krakowski.
Nothing about the evening would indicate a rehearsal time of a mere few weeks. Rhodes delivers a smoothly polished production that blends near-constant choreographed movement and dazzling dance with seamless grace. Many of the visually arresting stage pictures are clearly indebted to Tune (who was in attendance on opening night), but not so slavishly that it feels like a mere carbon copy of the original.
The cast may not be star-studded, but they are all first-rate as the Grand Hotel’s residents, each desperate in one way or another. Irina Dvorovenko (FX’s The Americans) plays Elizaveta, the aging prima ballerina, with Natascia Diaz as Raffaela, the personal aide who’s secretly in love with her. James Snyder (If/Then) is the dashing Baron Felix Von Gaigern, who despite his supposed nobility is a flat-broke jewel thief. John Dossett (Newsies) brings to life the American businessman whose shady deals are catching up to him. Brandon Uranowitz (An American in Paris, Falsettos) plays Otto Kringelein, the fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper who has checked into the hotel to experience some living before he dies. And Helene Yorke (American Psycho) is Flaemmchen, the young typist who dreams of Hollywood stardom and is willing to sell herself to attain it.
All the performers make their undeniably stock characters, even the villainous businessman, deeply sympathetic. The rest of the ensemble is equally superb, especially William Ryall (a veteran of the original production) as the sardonic doctor/narrator and James T. Lane and Daniel Yearwood as the “Two Jimmys.”
The book, written by Luther Davis (with an uncredited assist by Peter Stone), strains at times to weave together its disparate storylines and multiple characters. But the show ultimately hangs together thanks to the vivid Weimar-era Berlin atmosphere and gorgeous music by Robert Wright and George Forrest, the composers of Kismet and Song of Norway. (Maury Yeston, who had worked with Tune on Nine, contributed additional music and lyrics.) Although the score featured no breakout hits, it’s consistently tuneful, combining haunting, Kurt Weill-influenced balladry with high-energy jazziness.
The music is thrillingly sung, from Snyder’s soaring “Love Can’t Happen” to Diaz’s poignant “How Can I Tell” to Dvorovenko’s wistful “Bonjour Amour” and Yorke’s life-affirming “Girl in the Mirror.” The undeniable standout, now as it was nearly 30 years ago, is “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” a Charleston-style dance number in which Kringelein suddenly rouses from his physical decrepitude to dance a joyous celebration of life. Neither Rhodes’ choreography nor Uranowitz’s performance quite matches the peerless original performed by the late, great Michael Jeter (you can see it on YouTube, and you really must), but the number nonetheless proves a spectacular showstopper, lifting the evening to an entirely new level.
Then there’s Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia, both veteran tango dancers, who infuse their “Bolero” number, and an encore at the finale, with torrid intensity. As usual, the Encores! orchestra sounds glorious under the musical direction of Rob Berman, while Allen Moyer’s scenery full of lavish red curtains and chandeliers, Linda Cho’s elegant costumes and Ken Billington’s Expressionistic lighting further burnish the evening’s high gloss.
One of the finest Encores! productions in the organization’s 25-year history, Grand Hotel fully deserves the swift Broadway transfer that seems inevitable.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
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 Synder, Brandon Uranowitz, Daniel Yearwood, Helene York
Book: Luther Davis
Music and lyrics: Robert Wright, George Forrest
Additional music and lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director-choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Music director: Rob Berman
Presented by New York City Center Encores! at 25