Strangers in the night at a grand hotel
Audiences travel back in time to ritzy 1928 Berlin in Grand Hotel, playing at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., through May 19.
With a book by Luther Davis and music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, the show was a hit on Broadway in 1989. However, this local production, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, leaves the audience somewhat unsatisfied.
The musical follows an array of unusual guests at a popular hotel, including a doctor injured in WWI (Lawrence Redmond) and a businessman (Kevin McAllister) chasing a failing deal.
There’s an oft-retiring ballerina (Natascia Diaz) who catches the eye of a charming Baron (Nkrumah Gatling) being harassed by a gangster (Gregory Maheu) intent on collecting debts.
The Baron also flirts with a secretary (Nicki Elledge) dreaming of a Hollywood career. Then there’s a dying bookkeeper (Bobby Smith), just trying to enjoy his last days at the hotel.
The Signature Theatre, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, lends itself well to an intimate experience. The center aisle is a wonderful touch in the scenic design by Paul Tate DePoo III, putting actors and ensemble members in close proximity to the audience. The decorative stairs and railings are impressively glitzy.
Superb choreography, music
While the performers and the orchestra have excellent volume and sound quality, there are problems during the sequences where conversations and vocals overlap. This creative device can create dramatic effect, such as ratcheting up the tension when the businessman is confronted by the company’s board members. However, it eventually becomes too distracting, making it hard to understand the lyrics at times.
Otherwise, the musical numbers are excellently executed, with superb choreography by Kelly Crandall D’Ambrose. Telephone operators connecting incoming calls to the switchboard gesture perfectly, for instance.
The idea of class and position resonates powerfully throughout the show, particularly when the scullery workers perform “Some Have, Some Have Not/As It Should Be.” The clanging noises as they dance and bang their crates against the floor represents the physicality of their work and their discontent with inequality.
The relationship between the Baron and the ballerina is a major plot point in Grand Hotel but is far from the most compelling. Despite fine vocals, Gatling does not demonstrate enough passion in “Love Can’t Happen” when he is onstage with Diaz. He gives a more earnest effort in his solo “Roses at the Station,” but it’s far too late.
In contrast, the flirtations between Gatling and Elledge, the Baron and secretary, convey more chemistry. Similarly, Gatling is convincing in his strong though unlikely friendship with the ailing accountant. There’s a lightness and unforced sincerity in both of these relationships which linger in one’s mind long after final bows.
The most memorable characters in Grand Hotel are the bookkeeper, the secretary and two singers known as the “Jimmys” (Ian Anthony Coleman and Solomon Parker III). For much of the musical, the latter provide comic relief, and their entertaining zingers hold a running commentary about class that resonates today. Coleman and Parker also perform dynamic dance moves, particularly as they lead their own number, “The Grand Charleston.”
With a strong presence on stage, Elledge stands out as a sympathetic Hollywood-aspiring secretary. She is adept in shifting from fun-loving and determined to vulnerable and afraid. That range of emotions is notable in her vocals during her solo, “Girl in the Mirror.”
However, the best aspects of her character come through in Elledge’s rapport with Smith — demonstrated both in their lines and their improved dancing as scenes unfold.
Smith is wonderful when his hands tremble as the ailing bookkeeper. His dancing range is perfectly suited to his awkward yet endearing character in “Who Couldn’t Dance with You?” and “We’ll Take a Glass Together.”
While there are pluses in this production, the minuses leave a theatergoer wanting more by curtain call.
Given the more mature themes of the plot, as well as brief depictions of drug use and smoking, Grand Hotel isn’t appropriate for children.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit signature.org or call (703) 820-9771. Performances continue through May 19 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va.