By Jane Recker
An aspiring actress, a broke baron, an aging ballerina, a corrupt CEO and a dying bookkeeper. Put them all together in a glittering hotel and 1920’s period costume combined with high energy musical numbers and dances and you should have yourself a hit musical.
Unless, of course, you try to do so in an hour and 45 minutes.
Such is the plight of Grand Hotel, Kokandy Production’s newest show at Theater Wit. While the show (book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston) had the right ingredients to last for more than 1,000 Broadway performances and garner 12 Tony nominations in 1990, there simply isn’t enough time to fully explore all the storylines presented. Indeed the lack of a Broadway revival since the original production speaks volumes, particularly considering producers’ present penchants to dust off anything that might procure a whiff possible prosperity.
The premise is interesting enough. Set in 1928 at the Grand Hotel Berlin, the show follows the lives and interactions of the varied guests mentioned above. The way is filled with twists and turns like unrequited love, a romance blind to age-difference, an accidental pregnancy and a murder. A complete production history and plot summary may be read here.
The performances are solid enough. Leryn Turlington is a charming ingénue – bell-like of belt and sharp of tongue – as typist and aspiring actress Flaemmchen. Erik Dohner’s classical tenor needs no mic in his confident portrayal of the Baron. And Jonathan Schwart veritably steals the show as the ailing Otto Kringelein: naïve, exuberant and impossibly lovable.
Jeffery D. Kmiec’s set design and John Nasca’s costume design are gorgeous enough. The clean, white, sparkling, marble and lattice interior of The Grand Hotel provides an alluring backdrop that allows the colors of the flapper dresses to pop. Coated in beads, feathers and sequins and, of course, always designed with a straight line, the impressive array of trappings for the ladies provides a veritable fashion show within the musical’s proceedings.
If only all these assets could support such a flimsy book. Case in point: the “love at first sight” romance between the young Baron and the middle-aged ballerina. While this love is developed nicely later in the show (and props for including a non-traditional couple) the initial attraction feels incredibly forced. Is it possible that a younger man could fall for an older woman while lying about his love for her to cover up the fact he was trying to steal her necklace to pay off his debts? Perhaps in a Wes Anderson movie. But this is musical theater, and the sweeping melodies of romance that accompany their love at first sight simply feel too rushed and intense for this scene.
There is also some sloppy character development. The moral struggle faced by Hermann Preysing (Jeremy Trager) as he faces potential bankruptcy is believable when he debates whether to lie to investors about a failed merger. It’s when it devolves into a kitschy villain number (“The Crooked Path”) and the sexual harassment of Flaemmchen that it becomes too over the top, even for a musical villain.
The aforementioned seduction is to blame for some cringe worthy writing reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker’s brooding monologue about the evils of sand. When imploring his typist to start relations with him, Preysing asks her, “be nice to me.” This is repeated over and over again, even when they are alone together in her hotel room. While it makes sense to use a double entendre when speaking about the taboo in a crowded ballroom, it feels unnecessary and forced when the typist has just removed her panties in a strip tease. “Be nice to me”= “Have sex with me.” We’re all on board here.
The songbook, too, is less than memorable. Quick, name a song from Grand Hotel. Exactly. And while there are strong performances from this cast (“I Want To Go To Hollywood” and “Roses at the Station” among them), overall the musical numbers (like the book) are uninspiring.
It’s commendable that Kokandy tackles this monster as well as it does. Any lacking in this show is through no fault of the company’s, aside from its choice to do it in the first place. The design is gorgeous and the performances, solid. The book is simply so weak that even Broadway’s biggest stars couldn’t make this Hotel grand.
Kokandy Productions presents “Grand Hotel” through May 27 at the Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.