The Theatreguide.London Review
This 1989 musical ran for three years on Broadway, largely on the strength of Tommy Tune's elegant and fluid direction, along with scene-stealing performances in a couple of key supporting roles. The same production folded after three months in London, having somehow lost much of its charm (and those two performers)
The current revival directed by Michael Grandage falls somewhere between the two, more successful than not, but not quite successful enough. It's OK, but too rarely any better than OK, though perhaps only someone who remembers the original - or has seen some of the cast members doing more exciting work elsewhere - would know what's missing.
It is, of course, based on the novel by Vicki Baum and the 1932 movie (the one in which Garbo said she wanted to be alone) following some of the visitors to an elegant Berlin hotel in 1928. Among them are an aging ballerina on her umpteenth farewell tour, an impoverished baron who comes to rob her and stays to make love, a typist on the make, and a dying little man spending his life savings on a bit of elegance.
The musical's roots lie in the 1950s when Luther Davis (book) and Robert Wright and George Forrest (songs) were unable to get their version staged. Thirty years later, with additional songs by Maury Yeston, the original material proved thoroughly workable - if not especially cutting-edge, the script does keep the various plot lines intertwined nicely, and the songs, if not especially memorable, do the job.
The show is at its weakest when it tries to revel in the decadence of 1920s Berlin, wandering into Kander-Ebb territory, or - even worse - when it tries to make a social comment about rich and poor like bad imitation Brecht-Weill. Fortunately, those moments are few.
For the most part it is happy with its old-fashioned sentimentality - will the baron and ballerina find true love? Will the typist succumb to the odious businessman? Will the old man die happy?
The strengths of the current revival lie in Michael Grandage's by-now confident and expert use of the Donmar's small space and intimate audience-stage relationship. It is difficult to exaggerate the added power a show gains from being right in front of you, without the barriers of distance or obtrusive amplification. Working with choreographer Adam Cooper, Grandage keeps the stage full but never cluttered, and if the dance numbers never really take off, they're all at least pleasant.
Unfortunately the performances, by a cast who have all been better elsewhere, also too rarely rise above the merely pleasant. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, yet another B-list Hollywood star dropping in on London, actually comes out best. Though you won't for a minute believe she's a ballerina, she does capture the Garboesque spiritual exhaustion, and gets the one real show-stopping number, her thrilled-at-feeling-something-again Bonjour Amor.
Julian Ovenden looks handsome and sings nicely as the baron, but doesn't escape the trap of woodenness that lies in romantic leads. Both Helen Baker and Daniel Evans have stolen shows before, she in last year's Thoroughly Modern Millie, he in the Donmar's Merrily We Roll Along. But here they give personality-less generic performances, and the two numbers that stopped the show on Broadway - the typist's dance with a couple of black American cabaret performers and the dying man's moment of joyful kicking-up-his-heels - go by practically unnoticed, almost as if director and choreographer were deliberately burying them.
And that may be the strongest sense you get of this production, even if you don't know the original. It is not so much that anything is wrong as that so many opportunities for it to be much better - opportunities that the material and the cast's talents provide - have been missed.
Grand Hotel is OK, but just OK.
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Review - Grand Hotel - Donmar 200