Monday, August 22, 2022

Grand Hotel - A Glimpse into the Suite Life

 

Scott Pearson as the Baron and Daina Michelle Griffith and Elivaveta Credit: Courtesy Photo

  To paraphrase Colonel Doctor Otternschlag, one of the characters in Grand Hotel, people come, people go and nothing happens.

    In the hands of Scott P. Calhoon, who’s directing the spirited musical for Front Porch Productions at the Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side, nothing could be further from the truth.     

Calhoon holds the reins of the cast of 27 and seems to fill every moment of the 2-hour long, intermission-free show with movement, nuance and visual theatrics. They start with the way he has the trio of telephone operators mimic the lines of their switchboard and extend to the lineup of dancers who boogie their way through some demanding choreography by Danny Herman/Rocker Verastique.

    Based on a 1929 novel by German writer, Vicki Baum, the Grand Hotel narrative was later adapted for a 1932 Oscar-winning film, filled with a bevy of Hollywood stars including Greta Garbo, best remembered for her line “I want to be alone.”

    With a book by Luther Davis, music by Robert Wright and lyrics by George Forrest, the musical version debuted in 1958 but with a mediocre success. Not so with the 1989 Broadway resurrection of the work, headed by director/choreographer Tommy Tune and abetted by additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.

    The newly revamped Grand Hotel went on to top over 1,000 performances and earn 12 Tony nominations.

    Following on the heels of these momentous achievements, Front Porch Theatricals took a brave step forward by deciding to stage the show despite its challenging prerequisites. Any doubts as to whether the company was up to the task vanished soon after the opening number “The Grand Parade.”

    As the major characters made their way ceremoniously onto the stage, the chorus filled the theater with gorgeous harmony, backed by a seven-piece orchestra headed by conductor Douglas Levine.

    Similar to Cabaret, Grand Hotel is set in 1928 and the era of the Weimar Republic, a roaring time of fun and frolicking that served as prelude to the darker times ahead. Just as in Cabaret, the musical has a narrator in the guise of Otternschlag (Patrick Mizzoni), a WW I veteran who bears the wounds of battle with a cynical tone and introduces the illustrious guests as they process through the lobby one by one.

    There’s the dashing, debonair Baron Felix von Gaigern (Scott Pearson), a ladies’ man whose noble title and impecunious status has him resort to larceny and cavorting with underworld figures to whom he is heavily in debt.

    The aging but still ravishing ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Daina Michelle Griffith), comes in dressed in furs and regally sumptuous gowns. I’ve never done drag or even wanted to but the outfits costume designer, Valerie Webster, comes up with might just be enough to push me over the edge.

    Elizaveta’s faithful and ardent companion/assistant, Raffalea (Kristin Conrad) had me thinking in terms of Princess Diana’s favorite lady-in-waiting in the film Spencer. The relationship between the two is more than meets the eye.

    Lacking any pretense of glamour is the tragic Otto Klingelein (Jason Swauger), a dying Jewish accountant who checks into the hotel to spend his last moments “enjoying life.” A businessman headed for a moral dilemma, General Director Preysing (Daniel Krell) puts aside his financial worries and becomes sexual predator intent on seducing Flaemmchen (Betsy Miller), a secretary with high hopes of becoming a film star who’ll do almost anything to get there.

    The major characters have story lines that overlap, and, in between the narrative, the show feature 23 songs, many of which include some up-tempo dancing.

    Griffith does surprisingly well when called on to simulate the play’s requisite ballet movements and performs a stunning rendition of “Bonjour Amour."  I’ve seen the actress perform numerous times over the years, and this is my favorite role for her. Judging by her polished, in-character interpretation and the glee in which she seems to perform, I’d guess it would be one of hers as well.

    Griffith and Miller excel in roles miles apart in temperament and sophistication. As the veteran ballerina, Griffith is a regal figure resting on her laurels, confident about her past, yet anxious and worried about her future.

    In the role of Flaemmchen, Miller is a bundle of zest and ambition, a blonde bombshell quick to take advantage of her good looks. She positively sizzles in “The Girl in the Mirror,” and manages to sing and dance with equal above-the-norm aptitude.

    Despite his mercenary leanings, Pearson as the baron is an affable character who comes through with a conscience and soft heart when pressed by circumstance. He shows off his vocal skills in “As It Should Be” and with Griffith in “Love Can’t Happen.”

    Swauger adds a comic touch to the song “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” but goes down a more serious path in “Table with a View.”

Mtthew Diston, Betsy Miller and Malcolm McGraw Courtesy Photo

    Something special to look out for is a bravado song and dance routine by the Two Jimmies (Matthew Diston and Malcolm McGraw) that left me wishing for more. And keep your eyes glued to Grant Braden and Mikaela Kapeluck for their lengthy Bolero interlude.

    The solid cast extends to the minor characters, starting with Sam Marzella as Erik, the put-upon, harried front desk clerk; Jeremy Spoljarich as the nasty-tempered concierge and Gavin Carnahan as Sandor.

Some of the Supporting Cast of Grand Hotel

    Filling scenic designer, Johnmichael Bohach’s creatively conceived set with splashes of color, lighting designer, Andrew David Ostrowski creates patterns of mood inducing radiance that almost achieve the status of an additional character to the roster of players.

    For sheer uplifting entertainment and enjoyment done well, Front Porch Theatricals’s Grand Hotel is an escape from the mundane into a fantasy world peopled by an array of vibrant characters. The hotel is now taking reservations.

    Grand Hotel, a production of Front Porch Theatricals, is at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side through August 28. For tickets, phone 412-320-4610 or www.frontporchpgh.org

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