Reviewed by MAC Hoover
“Grand Hotel Berlin. Always the same – people come, people go – one life ends while another begins – one heart breaks while another beats faster….” The Doctor, the narrator, quips, “I’ll stay – one more day.”
This is a show that should not be missed. This writer had seen other productions of Grand Hotel the musical, but this was the first time I felt as if it was SEEN, for the beautiful, messy parable of life that it is.
The story takes place in Berlin in 1928, before the stock market crash and well before WWII, and is based on a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum. It was made into an award-winning movie in 1932. There was a 1958 heavily altered musical version of the story from the creative team behind Kismet that failed to make it to Broadway. It was reimagined by Tommy Tune in 1989, who took it back to its roots and gave us this delightful compilation of vignettes staged amidst the hustle and bustle of a posh European Hotel.
Who could have predicted the same issues that plagued society over 90 years ago are still present today? Grand Hotel touches on addiction, anti-semitism, capitalism, prostitution, elitism, sexual harassment, and ageism. There is intrigue, gangsters, and corruption. There are end-of-life issues, murder, theft, unrequited love, aspiration, and longing.
All of this is wrapped up in a beautiful dance, deftly alluded to by the bolero dancers (Grant Braden and, in this performance, Leah Prestogeorge). They glided in and out of the action, never usurping the actors, but enhancing the interplay between the characters.
Front Porch’s wonderful production is performed without intermission, and this writer was grateful for that. This kept the action at a brisk pace, and the timing of the character interplay was flawless. I was glued to the stage as I watched the character development play out before my eyes. The actors nimbly guided their characters through ethical dilemmas as we watched them morph into the flawed yet hopeful people they were becoming.
At the opening, we are introduced to the narrator (understudy Patrick Mizzoni at this performance), a horribly injured physician who self-medicates throughout the story. He is the fly on the wall as we met the hotel workers, the scullery workers, telephone operators, and bellhops. We meet the Assistant concierge Erik (Sam Marzella) at the front desk while his wife is in labor.
Other guests include Baron Felix Von Gaigern (Scott Pearson), a suave nobleman with charm, debt, and a questionable conscience. We meet an aging Russian prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Daina Michelle Griffith), and her entourage, who need her to perform to finance their payroll. Her confidante and dresser, Raffaela (Kristin Conrad), has feelings for her but keeps them to herself.
Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Jason Swauger), who is fatally ill, wants to spend his life’s savings to live his final days at the hotel in the lap of luxury. He used to work for General Director Preysing (Daniel Krell), a company executive trying to negotiate a contract. He employs a temp, Flaemmchen ( Betsy Miller), who dreams of Hollywood stardom and fears she might be pregnant from a suitor who is ghosting her.
Two hotel entertainers, the Jimmys (Malcolm McGraw and Matthew Dustin), are outstanding as a duo who befriend Flaemmchen.
Supporting characters are capably mastered by David Ieong, who rocked a cape as Zinnowitz and as the lawyer Witt, Jeremy Spoljarick as Rohan and the skeevy concierge, and Gavin Carnahan as Sandor/ and the gangster Chauffeur. One must also shout out to the aptly named Madame PeePee, (Christy Rodibaugh), whose comic expression was an understated, brilliant reflection of her position as restroom attendant.
The interplay of these characters served as a metaphor for life itself…the things that happen while you are busy making plans. The performances were spot on, and the precise timing and blend of dance and music were masterful. I can’t say enough about that.
The set was very clever, with an art deco flair. Chairs and a rod were effectively used to transform the spaces. The three tiers in the theater itself were beautifully and economically presented as a grand staircase. It was a visual delight with designer Johnmichael Bohach creatively using such a unique space and Andrew David Ostroski’s lighting; the color changes are a nice touch.
Unfortunately, the sound was the weak spot in the production, sounding more like a PA system announcement than the actors’ nuanced performances. Volume was inconsistent, and the microphone tracking was late at times, disrupting the flow of dialogue. I had to try to fill in the gaps in the conversations.
The orchestrations were masterfully guided by Douglas Levine, who assembled a wonderful group of musicians, capably handling the lively score without overwhelming the lyrics. Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique intricate period style choreography provides a nice uplift to the deeper themes of the narrative.
Scott Calhoun is the talented director whose vision brought this story together.
Kudo’s to Front Porch Theatricals for another outstanding production and for sharing your vision of Grand Hotel with Pittsburgh. Leon would be proud.
Remaining performances of Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Grand Hotel run August 24th to 28th.For tickets visit: https://ci.ovationtix.com/36406/production/1091433