Grand Hotel – The Musical, based on the portmanteau novel by Vicki Baum and the Garbo movie of 1932, has had more luck Stateside than in the West End. Its success on Broadway in 1989, where it won five Tonys, was down to the creative vision of dance legend Tommy Tune, who fashioned an opulent and high kicking spectacle from this juicy material.
Here, in the less glamorous environs of South London's Elephant and Castle, director Thom Southerland proves yet again that he is unmatched in bringing his Midas touch to off-west end musicals. The small spaces and tiny budgets he works on are no rein on his theatrical imagination and just as with Titanic (which transferred to Toronto), Victor/Victoria, Mack and Mabel, Parade he again delivers an extraordinarily polished and classy production using a large, well-drilled cast.
The opening number goes "you're in the Grand Hotel" and you certainly are if you sit in the front row onto this traverse stage. This show's opulence was a perfect fit for Broadway's gigantism but here, designer Lee Newby, achieves just as much with just a pristine tiled floor, a single crystal chandelier and some very well chosen costumes. One wonders how Southerland and Newby would fare let loose with Broadway sized budgets.
Over the course of a weekend in 1928 Berlin we see the intersecting stories of a group of guests at this deluxe establishment: a faded Russian prima ballerina on yet another farewell tour; her devoted female ‘companion'; a fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his final days in the lap of luxury; a young, handsome but destitute Baron; a hard-bitten old doctor who mainlines morphine; a businessman corrupted by the stock market boom and a typist dreaming of escape to Hollywood.
Southerland's challenge, particularly in the many ensemble numbers, is to keep the overlapping vocals clear and to keep them all moving. He succeeds brilliantly. The traverse staging too, helps up the pace as we're saved clunky scene changes and Davis' book is an object lesson in concision.
Wright and Forrest's music is a nostalgic wallow in the dance band styles of the era and foxtrots, tangos, waltzes and, of course, Charlestons, abound. All are beautifully orchestrated here by Simon Lee. 'Artistic differences' with Tune meant Wright & Forrest were sent on their way and Tune then hired Maury Yeston, fresh from the hit Nine, to add new songs. The piece zips along at 2 hours without an interval and Tune's influence is clear in the centrality of the dance numbers, with 'Girl in a Mirror' a stand-out.
Among a uniformly sharp cast of seventeen, Christine Grimandi is suitably haughty as the prima ballerina and Valerie Cutko is a towering and tailored Sapphic fantasy as the devoted/enslaved Raffaela. Scott Garnham's powerful vocals help to perfectly land the big love duet 'Love Can't Happen' and George Rae is delightful as the sickly, anxious, Otto who reveals an altogether more zippy side to his personality when finally unleashed on the dance floor. Like an Agatha Christie adaptation this overflows with opportunities for clever character actors to commit grand larceny.
The only bum note is an unnecessary directorial flourish at the end presaging the rise of Nazism. If I was a Noo Yorka I might exclaim: "Like enough already with the Nazis".Tickets: southwarkplayhouse.co.uk