The Shaw Festival’s big musical for this season is Grand Hotel. It is indeed a grand musical that places enormous demands on the financial resources and the talent pool of any company. The Shaw Festival has a considerable amount of both and they were used to good effect in this production but there were a few gaps.
Grand Hotel (based on Vicki Baum’s novel) is set in Berlin in 1928, perhaps a pivotal year in European history. The hotel is the most expensive one in Europe and as such the crossroads of the wealthy and famous. Most of the action takes place in the lobby and Set Designer Judith Bowden has provided large columns, rich lighting, a not so grand staircase and an even less grand staircase on wheels that does give the impression of wealth and perhaps decadence.
The musical has a number of plot strands involving the lives of the hotel’s guests. Most of them live on the edge of the precipice. Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) is a famous Russian ballerina well past her prime and on yet another final tour. She tripped and fell during her last performance. She is in a desperate state while trying to maintain her pride and dignity. She reminded me of the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Hay did convincing work as the pathetic ballerina despite an unsteady Russian accent.
Like Norma Desmond, Grushinskaya has an assistant called Raffaela (Patty Jamieson) who must encourage, cajole and pretend that the ballerina can still perform in order to keep their financial needs covered. Jamieson does it all with charm and conviction against major odds such as reality.
Baron von Gaigen (James Daly) is tall, slender, blonde, charming and handsome but broke to the point of being pursued by an enforcer who demands payment of his “boss’s” debt. All his marvelous attributes do not bring money and the poor Baron resorts to theft. He has a stroke of good luck when the ballerina falls in love with him but there is no happy ending for him.
The bookkeeper Otto Kringelein is a decent man and a Jew who wants to live well for a brief while before his imminent death. He is socially awkward and exposed to anti-Semitism. Michael Therriault gives a superb performance in the role.
Hermann Preysing (Jay Turvey) is the general manager of a company that is losing money and he is forced to lie to the shareholders. He descends into further immorality by trying to get Frieda Flamm (Vanessa Sears), a would-be actress, to go with him to the States as his mistress. The current climate about sexual abuse of women by powerful men made the scenes between Preysing and Sears even more poignant.
The musical covers several social strata from the front desk employees of the hotel, to the telephone operators to the scullery workers.
The musical opens and closes with the Colonel-Doctor (Steven Sutcliffe), a man wounded physically and psychologically during World War I. He injects morphine into his arm and acts as a chorus throughout the play. All the action takes place in his shadow and we are never allowed to forget what preceded the high life of the 1920’s nor what lies ahead. With marvelous voice and presence, Sutcliffe gave a bravura performance.
The large cast needs singers, dancers and actors that perform routines that require considerable prowess. The dancers who perform various numbers are quite superb especially Matt Nethersole and Kiera Sangster as the Jimmys, a song and dance team. Parker Esse’s choreography is outstanding.
The singing is a mixed bag of voices that have a considerable variation in quality. That was one of the major gaps of the production.
Eda Holmes deserves kudos for directing a complex musical with good results despite some issues.
Berlin in 1928 and the world are the survivors of a catastrophic war that is followed by an era of laissez-faire, easy money and apparent enjoyment of life. But that world is coming to an end and the crash of the stock market and consequent misery are around the corner. The musical is set on the cusp of that era, albeit with the benefit of looking back. Despite all that, the musical does end on at least one positive note: the happy birth of a child.
Grand Hotel by Luther Davis with music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest based on the novel by Vicki Baum had its media premiere on May 23 and will play in repertory until October 14, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.