By Michael Hillyer
With this sumptuous, haunted revival of Grand Hotel, The Musical, the Encores! Series at New York City Center is celebrating its 25th season of producing first-class concert versions of classic Broadway musicals. Tommy Tune’s masterful original production of Grand Hotel closed just about 25 years ago, so its inclusion in this season’s celebration is as apt as it is welcome.
You know the deal with Encores! at City Center, right? They do it on a shoestring, sometimes with the actors with script in hand, without the sets and costumes and all the filler, for very short runs. They usually pack the cast with talented actors and sometimes even send their productions off for eye-catching runs on Broadway.
Well, forget about all that, except for possibly the run on Broadway part. Grand Hotel has been given an especially opulent mounting at City Center, considering the strictures normally facing offerings in the Encores! Series. These actors are “off book.” There are finished costumes (there are even costume changes). There is a set. There are props. There is, well, all that filler you don’t normally see at Encores! There has almost always been Ken Billington’s excellent light design; he has by now lit 36 of these shows at City Center.
The cast is quite good, and if a few of the performances here and there cannot outrun the memory of those who came before, for the most part the company is able to put their own indelible stamp on things. William Ryall (Colonel/Doctor) returns from the original production, this time as the play’s morphine-addicted doctor. Triple-threats James T. Lane & Daniel Yearwood (The Two Jimmys) nail it early with their slick song-and-dance routine. John Dossett (Hermann Preysing) delivers a solid, believable performance as the industrialist on the verge of ruin, who arrives in a limo but departs in a squad car. Helene Yorke (Flaemmchen) is nothing short of sensational in the role that once introduced Joan Crawford to the screen. As the hotel’s resident suave but impoverished Baron-turned-thief, James Snyder (Baron Felix Von Gaigern) brings the requisite musical comedy skills, as does Brandon Uranowitz (Otto Kringelein) as the doomed bookkeeper taking a last shot at the high life before he goes. If Mr. Uranowitz doesn’t entirely eradicate the memory of Michael Jeter as Mr. Kringelein, well, that was probably never in the cards to begin with; Mr. Jeter is a hard act to follow, even 25 years later. Irina Dvorovenko (Elizaveta Grushinskaya) brings her own formidable presence from Lincoln Center and the international dance world to the part of the aging diva; she does well for herself in a role first made famous by Greta Garbo in one of her finest performances. Natascia Diaz (Raffaela Ottannio) and John Clay III (Erick) distinguish themselves in small but crucial roles.
The specters of productions past, however, haunt this show on several levels. The 1989 Broadway production, which was staged with deceptive simplicity by Mr. Tune, with equal parts guts and genius – was based on the classic 1932 Oscar Best Picture-winning film starring Garbo and the brothers Barrymore, which was itself based on a 1929 best-selling novel by Vicki Baum. Ghosts of all of these iterations hover over this Grand Hotel, but none more obviously so than Michael Jeter, who is surely smiling down from heaven, if perhaps just a tad brightly.
Those who were lucky enough to have seen Grand Hotel during its original run are those who will be most likely to discern these ghosts, as there are intentional reminders everywhere. The director and choreographer Josh Rhodes has retained so many elements of Tommy Tune’s original staging that this is not so much a revival as un hommage. The gold ballroom chairs, the floating ballet barre which defines the bar area, the elegant dancing partners that tango through the action like a wisp of spectral smoke, and much of the ensemble choreography from the original, have been retained.
Since the orchestra sits onstage above the action of the play at City Center, Mr. Rhodes is constrained to using only a shallow downstage playing area for the main action; given these limitations, he does a very creditable job of playing traffic cop with the large cast he has assembled. There has been some talk about moving Grand Hotel to Broadway: if this show has a future life ahead, let’s hope Mr. Rhodes gets himself a bigger, deeper stage to play on, so he can really break out on his own. Then, perhaps, some of those immortal spirits can move on.
Grand Hotel, The Musical, book by Luther Davis, Music and Lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston, directed by Josh Rhodes, Musical Director Rob Berman, sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by Linda Cho, lights by Ken Billington. With Junior Cervila, John Clay III, Natascia Diaz, John Dossett, Irina Dvorovenko, Guadalupe Garcia, Nehal Joshi, James T. Lane, Jamie LaVerdiere, Eric Leviton, Robert Montano, Kevin Pariseau, William Ryall, James Snyder, Brandon Uranowitz, Daniel Yearwood, Helene Yorke. At City Center, 131 W 55th St, New York, NY.