Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

Vicki Baum’s 1930 novel, Grand Hotel, was one of many by the author giving an overview of a particular time and place, as indicated by such titles as Shanghai ’37, A Tale of Bali, and Hotel Berlin ’43. Readers of the book and audiences for the stage adaptation (later in 1930) and the 1932 film version would have been familiar with the milieu of the luxury German hotel and the characters: the Russian ballet dancer, Grushinskaya, trained under a long-gone czarist regime, now despairing over her waning physical prowess; the war-deposed Baron Von Gaigern, his aristocratic protective sensibilities aroused by her childlike vulnerability; the dying and disillusioned Kringelein, who’s devoted his life to his employer and family but is now determined to live his last days for himself; his former boss, Preysing, who’s forced to compromise his scruples in order to save the business in which he’s invested so much of his life; the horribly mutilated Dr. Otternschlag, a World War I field surgeon living now only on his cynicism and his morphine; and the gruelingly poor but pretty secretary, Flaemmchen, who abandons her morals for a little money and a good time. The tensions among the haves, the have-nots, and the hads–all would have been familiar to Baum’s public.

Chronological and cultural differences have taken their toll on these fascinating and complex characters, however. The upheaval and devastation brought on by war and revolution are distant from 1992 America, and public aid and job corps have softened our ideas of poverty. And what have egalitarian Americans ever understood of fallen nobility? Though Luther Davis’s book for Grand Hotel–The Musical adheres to Baum’s basic framework of multiple narratives, Flaemmchen here comes off as a star-struck gold digger, Kringelein as a cute old codger off on a toot, and Preysing as a stereotypical fat-cat mogul. The only evidence of Dr. Otternschlag’s injuries are a discreet cane and eye patch, the baron’s behavior is that of a common gigolo, and Grushinskaya emerges as little more than a sympathetic Norma Desmond. As played by the Marriott-Lincolnshire cast of healthy, bright-eyed, smooth-faced young people, these characters seen more the inhabitants of an escapist song-and-dance revue manufactured by Hollywood during the Depression than denizens of a world on the verge of collapse. The characters may all claim to be “running out of time,” but they project so much optimism and vigor that even the ones left dead at the end are, we feel, certain to recover soon. Only Ray Frewen as the embittered Dr. Otternschlag manages to suggest the weariness and ennui of a man with an interesting past and present.

Whatever the flaws of Davis’s script–which is at least more faithful to Baum’s book than his ill-fated stage adaptation of 1958, At the Grand–there is no denying that songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest, with the aid of the reliable Maury Yeston, have provided a sparkling score of eminently serviceable songs. And choreographer Mark Hoebee has supplied some spectacular dance numbers–most notably the exuberant “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” featuring an energetic chorus led by the high-kicking Jim Corti as Kringelein, and a magnificent flamenco-tinged tango executed by Rob Rahn and Elizabeth Selz, which is no less impressive for having virtually nothing to do with the play’s story. Joe Leonardo’s direction and David Siegel’s orchestrations contribute just enough Brecht/Weill touches to evoke the period, and the performers are uniformly talented and personable. (Carol Kuykendall deserves special mention for the difficult role of Grushinskaya’s dresser, Raffaela, a role greatly expanded from that in the novel–she’s now a whole character, dressed in quasi-masculine attire and introduced as the ballerina’s “companion.”)

Thomas M. Ryan’s set conveys some of the grandeur of Berlin between the wars, though on the intimate in-the-round stage the hotel’s great revolving door–symbolic gateway to the world and a metaphor for life’s relentless progress–is reduced to an ordinary door strung onto some fancy stage hardware. Nancy Missimi’s costumes (based on Santo Loquasto’s original designs for the Broadway production in 1989) add a touch of exotic Leon Bakst splendor.

“Life goes on,” Dr. Otternschlag reminds us as guests depart the Grand Hotel and others arrive to occupy their rooms. Grand Hotel–The Musical is as faithful to our time as Baum’s novel was to hers, and it’s possible audiences unencumbered by memories of the story’s other incarnations will find this a pleasant and comforting experience.