Grand Hotel****+ (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 6, 2015 in Theatre

GrandHotelThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Wonderful as the place is, it takes some doing to make Southwark Playhouse appear opulent. Yet, with just one glittering chandelier, a host of glorious performances and a ravishing musical score, it now looks and feels like a million dollars (or maybe Deutschmarks). The setting is the Grand Hotel, Berlin in 1928, a building hosting fabulous wealth and creeping decadence in equal measures. Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, this is a Tony Award winning musical that is hardly a stranger to these shores, having had two major London productions previously, the most recent of which was at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004. Producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have specialised in rescuing American musicals threatened with obscurity and bringing them to London fringe venues. One of their greatest successes, Titanic, was seen here exactly two years ago. The involvement of Maury Yeston gives a clear link between this show and Titanic, while the musical style and the subject matter of the two also bear strong resemblances. Here we have characters in transit all facing their nemeses – failing health, failing finances, failing careers – and in the distance is the metaphorical iceberg of the Third Reich. Southerland makes this point to chilling effect in a finale that sees all the finery stripped away and discarded ruthlessly. A traverse performance area gives the impression of the show taking place in a long hotel corridor. This occasionally results in awkward staging and some craning of necks is required from most seating positions. However, Southerland makes imaginative use of the set-up at the very start, with hotel staff and guests entering at opposite ends and facing up to each other as if going into battle. Then follows a 20-minute opening musical sequence in which the characters are introduced to us, one by one. A sinister, war-wounded German army doctor (David Delve) roams the hotel like a harbinger of doom, witnessing a period of change in which American financiers are mingling with fading European aristocrats. The old order is represented by the young, penurious Baron von Geigern (Scott Garnham with debonair looks and a soaring tenor voice); living off his title and dodging his creditors, he proves incapable of succeeding as either a thief or a gigolo, because, at the crunch, he is just too decent. Christine Grimaldi brings grace and elegance to the role of a 50-something ballerina, guarded by her loyal aide (Valerie Cutko); she convinces us that she is too old to dance and then she falls hopelessly in love like a teenage girl and dances. Victoria Serra is charming as a timid secretary, dreaming of a career in Hollywood, but hampered by being pregnant. Perhaps the most moving character is Otto Kringelein (George Rae giving a glowing performance), a terminally ill Jew who is determined to blow all he has on living, albeit briefly, the high life. The hotel manager at first refuses him entry, giving a bitter reminder that Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism, but, after the Baron has intervened, Otto revels in the luxury and gaiety. He performs the show’s best number, Who Couldn’t Dance With You?, and, casting aside his frailty, turns cartwheels across the stage. Such moments of magic linger in the memory for quite a while. Time allows only for the characters to be drawn as small cameos, but they are drawn vividly in the songs of George Forest, Robert Wright and Yeston and brought to life by an outstanding company of 17. The show is close to being sung-through, but Luther Davis’ book gives it shape and substance. Lee Proud’s choreography, incorporating Waltzes, Foxtrots and Charlestons, is spot-on, as are Lee Newby’s period costumes, and an eight-piece band, under the direction of Michael Bradley fills the space with a rich sound. The most striking features of Southerland’s production are its effortless flow and its unfaltering momentum. No scenery means no scene changes, multiple entrance and exit points mean that action at one end of the stage has begun almost before action at the other end is over. Everything combines to produce a whirlwind 110 minutes (no interval) and the only regret is having to check out so soon.

Performance date: 4 August 2015

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