Chicago Theater Review: GRAND HOTEL (Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 22, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Like the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera or the helicopter in Miss Saigon, a revolving door is the all-purpose metaphor for Berlin’s premiere hotel and the stories it spins. This fateful hostelry is the fertile setting for Maury Yeston’s 1986 musical version of Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel) and William A. Drake’s play adaptation, Grand Hotel. Of course, these were also the inspiration for the famous 1932 film version (also written by Drake), which starred both John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, and Lewis Stone, and which gave Greta Garbo her signature quote “I want to be alone.” (A Weimar Republic microcosm that catches the first tremors of the Great Depression and the Third Reich, Grand Hotel is the upscale companion piece to Cabaret.)

With only an intermissionless 110 minutes to expose so many intersecting lives, this door whirls fast. Happily, John D. Glover’s spirited revival for Kokandy Productions makes sense of and gives solidity to assorted glimpses of desperate souls on the eve of financial ruin and a fascist takeover. Hoofing up a Charleston or lounging in Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s gorgeous lobby, the large cast functions with Leona Helmsley efficiency.

Most notably, Jerry M. Miller provides potent moral authority to the world-weary war veteran who narrates the action. This grizzled survivor sees only the literal swirl of guests and staff, constant movement without significant change. As the opening number proclaims, it’s “The Grand Parade” where “Some Have, Some Have Not.” (Inequities oppress as much in 1928 as 90 years later.) How ironic that, on the cusp of world-altering upheaval, Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag should see only stasis! But then morphine dulls prophecy as much as nerves.

As the book by Luther Davis depicts, and the songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest detail, the story is the setting. Converging on this popular destination in central Berlin are assorted lives on the edge of tomorrow and the brink of breaking. Interestingly, intricately, and sometimes contrivedly (though songs can connect what logic can’t), two dozen lives briefly intertwine. And, more or less, these driven travelers actually make life better for each other — before they too sweep out through the not so transparent revolving doors.

Magically, over one fraught weekend the musical’s seemingly random comings and goings manage to matter. In any case life goes on and the perky bellboy Eric (Parker Guidry) will soon be a dad.

Presenting the assemblage: The once-great ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Michelle Jasso), now denying her decline; a businessman (Jeremy Trager) watching his empire collapse; his much-abused, once invaluable Jewish bookkeeper (Jonathan Schwart), now dying and working overtime to spend his savings and shorten his bucket list; a typist (Leryn Turlington) hoping for Hollywood fame who ends up going to Paris with the unlikeliest of male companions; the bankrupt and doomed Baron Felix von Gaigern (Erik Dohner) who, enduring extortion, still manages to bring late love to the diva/dancer; and the lesbian dresser and confidante (Liz Norton) who loves Elizaveta too much to tell her.

Always enthralling are the rapid-fire production numbers: Choreographer Brenda Didier pulls out every stop in “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” as do The Two Jimmys (Travis Austin Wright and Darren Patin), Nichols Brothers-style tap dancers. We’re equally regaled with charming duets (“Who Couldn’t Dance with You?”) and confessional solos (“Love Can’t Happen”). In two dozen very supportive songs, the lodgers’ unquiet desperations feed on hope (“I Want to Go to Hollywood”) and plea for help (“As It Could Be”). Smooth or peppy, the Wright-Forrest numbers, musically sculpted by Aaron Benham, echo the period’s platinum sheen, delivering the lost luxury of a vanished world. The performances from Glover’s rich ensemble are never less than sterling.

Sedately slumping in this Lobby of Fools, Miller’s cynical doctor sums it all up: “Grand Hotel, Berlin. Always the same — people come, people go — one life ends while another begins — one heart breaks while another beats faster — one man goes to jail while another one goes to Paris — always the same… I’ll stay — one more day.” Alas, we know exactly what’s heading his way and it won’t be “the same”: Next year stocks crash and, four years later, Germany goes toxic. The colonel’s slice of life is very thin.

photos by Evan Hanover

Grand Hotel
Kokandy Productions
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sat (May 19 and 26) and Sun at 3
ends on May 27, 2018
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Kokandy

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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