Review: ‘Grand Hotel’ at Signature Theatre

Time may be running out for the denizens of Berlin’s swanky Weimar era Grand Hotel who wonder if life has passed them by. But Signature Theatre’s roaring, non-stop rendering of the musical Grand Hotel is abundantly alive.

The cast of 'Grand Hotel' at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The cast of ‘Grand Hotel’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Under Eric Schaeffer’s well-honed theatrical instincts, the production is no depressive tale of lost souls coping with life after the slaughter of WWI. Schaeffer’s Grand Hotel certainly has its darker elements, yet overall it bursts forth with the hopes and dreams of a life boat of stray souls unexpectedly finding one another in a hotel lobby.

But there is more. The production is powered by full-throated jazzy musical numbers as well as longing love ballads. Abundant dance sequences and superb performances from a diverse, culturally rich cast of 18 (some are double cast) provide energetic glitz.

Let me first hone in on Grand Hotel’s choreographic style, a key element of the production’s success. It is full of expressionistic, angular verve, with the head-spinning weaving of cast members in close quarters, plentiful jazz hands, and stop motion freezes with thighs at the horizontal. Devised by Kelly d’Amboise, with assistant choreographer Dani Roy and Dance Captain Maria Rizzo, Grand Hotel is splendidly movement-centric. For a dance geek like me, it is one blissful, golden paean to teeming physical action as a life force for musical entertainment. Add in the on-the-money, seven-member band led by conductor Evan Rees with orchestration by Paul McKibbons and music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch, and the overall Grand Hotel production is a rush of sight and sound.

Based on Vicki Baum’s book Grand Hotel, and likely remembered for its 1932 black-and-white movie version, the storyline is of dissimilar characters from various walks of life. Some are decent, some are parasites, some are naïve, others are trying to figure out who they are or might once have been. All have a fateful encounter at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.

There is a fading “I can’t dance anymore” Prima Ballerina (a radiant Natascia Diaz) on the cusp of 50, still dancing the once beloved swan as they world turns to “the Charleston” and “Le Jazz Hot.” There is a younger, penniless, romantic Baron (a charming Nkrumah Gatling) looking for some cash and finding love instead. There is a struggling typist with dreams of making it in Hollywood who has her moral compass tested (a wide-eyed, believable Nicki Elledge) and a supposed family-man, who is a randy capitalist needing an influx of money to survive who loses his ethics when times are tough (a down-low performance by Kevin McAllister). Add a timid, ill bookkeeper (played to a “T” by a stooped-shouldered, utterly delightful Bobby Smith) and a deeply cynical WW I veteran and doctor living by means of a regular drug fix (a sharp Lawrence Redmond). Let’s not forget, the long time, unrequited love-struck dresser for the Ballerina (an open-hearted Crystal Mosser), and Ben Gunderson as a young hotel clerk and father-to-be who is the object of unwanted advances from his male supervisor. Other company members who caught my notice attention are Ian Anthony Coleman and Solomon Parker III, Gregory Maheu, and Maria Rizzo.

Nkrumah Gatling (Baron Felix von Gaigern) and Bobby Smith (Otto Kringelein) in 'Grand Hotel' at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Nkrumah Gatling (Baron Felix von Gaigern) and Bobby Smith (Otto Kringelein) in ‘Grand Hotel’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Several of Grand Hotel’s over twenty musical numbers left me in awe. From the top of the show, after a dark opening, is the boisterous “The Grand Parade” that introduces the key characters and elements of Signature’s Grand Hotel. “Grand Hotel, Berlin. Always the same. People come, people go. Look at them. Living the high life. But time is running out.”

There is “Maybe My Baby Loves Me,” brightly sung and happily danced by Coleman and Parker to lyrics “Maybe my baby loves me, loves me, loves me. But if my baby loves me, why does she treat me so mean?”

“Love Can’t Happen,” is a romantic duet sung with emotional feelings by Diaz and Gatling and “Bon jour Amour” is sunnily performed by Diaz. Sorrowful ballads include “Roses at the Station” from a ghostly Gatling, and “What She Needs? sung by a transporting Mosser. The temporary exuberance of a newly invigorated Smith as a once sickly man performing “We’ll Take a Glass Together” is truly priceless and brought the house down.

Paul Tate DePoo III’s burnished, bi-level scenic design is visual enchanting with a grand staircase, a richly appointed hotel lobby, and some strategically placed telephones. Colin K. Bills’ supple lighting palate imparts a glow to elegant wood finishes. There are some darker elements in the show exemplified by some sinister sound design by Ryan Hickey. The band members are hidden away on the higher level of the set. And then there is the costume design by Robert Perdziola.: sumptuous, scrumptious and just plain eye candy.

Grand Hotel at Signature is a slam dunk of high energy and movement. It is a night of musical entertainment to partake and revel in. As one Grand Hotel character states, “I want something out of life.” Signature has provided its audience with that something.

Running time: About one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

Grand Hotel plays through May 19, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Song list:
“The Grand Parade”
“Some Have, Some Have Not”
“As It Should Be”
Table with a View”/At the Grand Hotel”
“Maybe My Baby Loves Me”
“Fire and Ice”
“Twenty-Two Years”/”Villa On a Hill”
“Girl in the Mirror”
“Everybody’s Doing It”
“The Crooked Path”
“Who Couldn’t Dance With You?”
“Merger is On”

“Love Can’t Happen”
“What She Needs”
“Bonjour Amour”
“The Grand Charleston”
“We’ll Take A Glass Together”
“I Waltz Alone”
“Roses at the Station”
“How Can I Tell Her?”
“Final Scene”
“Grand Ending”

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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