Grand Hotel production

Grushinskaya (Michele Ragusa) and her manager Sandor (Jake Mills) during the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival’s production of Grand Hotel.

Mention the high life in Berlin after World War I, and the seedy nightlife of “Cabaret” probably comes to mind. Set in 1929-30 at the rise of Nazism, the 1996 musical was based on a play itself based on a 1939 novel, Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin.”

But a decade earlier, another novel, “People at a Hotel,” by the Jewish Austrian writer Vicki Baum, had chronicled the comings and goings of 1928 Berlin high society and those who served them. A play followed, then a star-studded 1932 MGM movie (with Garbo, Crawford, the Barrymores). Baum’s own life, from Vienna to Hollywood, as a musician, journalist, prolific novelist and daring boxer, deserves a film itself.

Much later, in 1989, came the inevitable musical. With book by Luther Davis and music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest (plus more from Maury Yeston), “Grand Hotel” garnered five Tony Awards. Ninety years later, we’re far from the original compelling socio-historical events, but there’s a glimmer of them in the current production at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse.

Brett Smock ably directs this show and also choreographs, assisted by Elle-May Patterson. An elegant old hotel’s grandeur is costly to come by, and Ed Chapman’s set of slender painted wood verticals doesn’t quite evoke such luxury. Adam Honoré’s interesting lighting uses spots and color washes to shift focus and mood, with the stage often dramatically dark in some areas. The choice seems emotionally correct, yet had the effect of distancing me from events rather than being swept into them.

But Tiffany Howard’s handsome period costumes (complemented by Alfonso Annotto’s wigs) bring considerable emotion and life to the scene: from elegant evening clothes to the hotel staff’s uniforms. The stage is complete with Brian Cimmet’s fine orchestra, positioned on the balcony level, just where you’d expect the hotel’s musicians to be.

The story itself is diffuse: Unlike “Cabaret,” there are no central figures to focus on; we’re invited by a jaded, veteran, self-drugging physician (Neal Benari) to join the human flux passing through that central revolving door. People come, people go––some thrive, others die, life goes on. However existentially valid, that awareness itself is detaching.

The large cast is talented, with some outstanding voices. As the impoverished Baron Felix Von Gaigern, threatened by creditors, Patrick Cummings seems at first opportunistic and shallow. But he gradually reveals himself to be generous, warm, unprejudiced, and capable of great love. Cumming’s singing “Roses at the Station” may leave you breathless. 

The surprising object of his affection is the Russian prima ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskaya, long past her prime, financially needing to perform but shamed at her waning abilities. Michele Ragusa effectively portrays the aging dancer emotionally (though not in balletic stance). She too at first seems merely a diva, but reveals depths of character and insight; her “Bonjour Amour” is moving.

Another unlikely couple is the typist aspiring to Hollywood and the financially desperate textile mill manager desiring her services—and more. Samantha Sturm’s Flaemmchen (“Little Flame” or “Baby Blaze”), as she’s renamed herself, is lovely, energetic, and dazzling, even in her naiveté. It’s no surprise that Mark Hardy’s towering Hermann Preysing preys on her; his increasingly creepy demands feel even more invasive today, if possible. (Hardy’s broad American accent is distracting, though, hardly conveying an urbane European businessman.)

Among the staff, standouts include the overworked assistant concierge, Erik (a personable, well-voiced Sam Stoll), awaiting news of his wife’s delivery, and African-American entertainers known collectively as the “two Jimmys.” Wesley Barnes and Darius Jordan Lee’s nimble dance number is so brilliant you’ll want to put it on repeat. 

Of all the hotel denizens whose paths intertwine, the most fascinating is Otto Kringelein, a frail and stooped Jewish bookkeeper, splendidly played by Dino Nicandros. Facing a terminal illness, he arrives with his life savings, determined to live out his last days in the luxury of the grand hotel. Otto transforms from ostracized nebbish into something very like a gentleman hero, blossoming under the friendship of the Baron and Flaemmchen. And in turn his own Menschlichkeit, or humanity, spreads to them as well.

From gangster to bellhop, money may preoccupy everyone at the Grand Hotel, but it’s love and classless friendship that they really need––as this musical production, with its human comedy parade, successfully affirms.

Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

Large cast carries “Grand Hotel” at MGR

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