Grand Hotel - The Musical
Above: Deborah Hay as Elizaveta Grushinskaya in Grand Hotel, The Musical. Photo by David Cooper.
Slider: Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm (Flaemmchen) with the cast from Grand Hotel, The Musical. Photo by David Cooper.
Opening on Broadway in 1989, after a long and drawn out incubation, “Grand Hotel” was finally heralded as a success with over 1,000 performances. Regardless, none of the critics seemed to be enamoured with the music or the performances.
Based on some of the reviews I’ve read so far, it doesn’t seem like The Shaw’s version at The Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake is faring any better, although most of what I’ve read has seemed unfair. Calling the actors “amateurs” is very harsh and not accurate. Perhaps the show is greater than the sum of its parts? Perhaps the stodgy old crowed that is usually attracted to musicals is just not ready to embrace the Shaw’s new 21st Century approach with younger performers in older roles?
I’m not a great fan of musicals and usually fight to stay focused during the first act, this is worse when I’m unfamiliar with the songs. Grand Hotel started out no differently.
The play opens with an elaborate stage setting representing the lobby of the Grand Hotel - the place Berlin, circa 1928. Centre stage is Colonel-Doctor played by actor Steven Sutcliffe, one of Shaw’s stand-out performers. He is dressed in a dark suit and is injecting himself with something that will kill the pain he is obviously suffering. He has a limp and a wound to his face almost certainly received in WW1 . As the Colonel-Doctor fades into his drug induced state of mind the Grand Hotel lobby comes to life.
Large ensemble singing and dancing is what makes musicals. Choreography, costumes and orchestra all come together to create an audio and visual spectacle. Grand Hotel does this quite well, the opening sequence is entertaining and grand. Slowly we are introduced to the guests at the hotel who’s individual and intertwining lives will reveal themselves.
The characters unfold in musical numbers that are lengthy. This is where it drags for me – 8 numbers dedicated to building the story lines of the characters. They are well acted and well performed which is no fault of the cast. The choreography and music are well done but with no familiarity to the music, the first act seems like it will go on forever ……until the last song before the intermission.
Young Baron von Gaigern, played by the handsome James Daly, woes an older and fading ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskya played by Deborah Hay. The two connect in a love scene featuring the song “Love Can’t Happen”. The lights fade and I am now engaged in the story enough to anticipate the second half.
While being set 1928 the story lines are extremely relevant for today. Take for instance, Frieda Flaemmchen, played by Vanessa Sears. Frieda is a typist looking for a job, but is not much different to any aspiring career girl who is willing to do “anything” to get ahead, well almost “anything” until she succumbs to the attentions of her sexually charged and very married boss, can you say, #metoo!
There’s the aging Otto Kringeleing, played to perfection by Micheal Therriault, who by the way is becoming my most favourite actor at the Shaw – EVER! Kringeleing is looking for companionship before he succumbs to his terminal illness, Therriault’s performance of a man twice his age is brilliant and convincing.
Also current is the underlying discontent of the staff behind the hotels posh exterior, workers underpaid and over worked whilst the opulence of the hotel’s façade belies its labour issues behind the scenes.
The second half of the Grand Hotel brings it all together, the character’s storylines are all revealed, the musical performances seem to move through seamlessly and culminate with some happy and not too happy endings.
With that being said the ensemble cast come together in a spectacular closing number that had me jumping to my feet with the rest of the audience in a standing ovation, making it clear ‘you should never judge a play by its opening act!!’
If you like musicals this is definitely one to see! Grand Hotel is playing at the Shaw until October 14th.
For ticket information visit www.shawfest.com
By Jenifer Cass