Let’s talk about the word “grand.”
Don’t worry: I’m not gonna go all “Merriam-Webster defines ‘grand’ as…” — I know you know what it means. But the word has a slightly antiquated feel these days, doesn’t it? Not that grand has lost its grandeur (we still use it plenty), but it’s acquired some dust on the gilt.
Midway through Signature Theatre’s latest musical extravaganza, Grand Hotel, which is going on now through May 19, I found myself remembering how Holden Caulfield felt about the word — and agreeing with him. “Grand. If there’s one word I hate, it’s grand. It’s so phony,” he remarks to the reader more than once. Not that Grand Hotel is entirely phony — a couple of actors manage to break through its surprisingly shallow emotional floor — but it’s grand in the thinnest sense, big and flashy, and more than a little old-fashioned.
Berlin, 1928. The Great (note: not grand) War is a mustard-gas fever dream; the depression and the rise of Hitler are dark shadows on the horizon no one is worrying about yet. Night-club jazz plays for would-be social climbers and faded aristocracy. Here, in what we’re told is the most glamorous hotel in Europe, a crooked businessman seeks to save his career by securing a trans-Atlantic merger, a destitute baron has turned thief, and a well-past-her-prime ballerina has melodramatic mood swings amid her farewell tour. Except …. the merger isn’t just smoke and mirrors, it’s bad smoke and mirrors; the baron isn’t actually ruthless enough to steal anything, even with someone’s .38-wielding henchman breathing down his neck; and the ballerina (whose concerns are legitimate) has been on farewell tours before.
As directed by Eric Schaeffer with musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch and choreography from Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, Grand Hotel can’t help but remind you of better musicals set in the ’20s, such as Chicago or The Wild Party. If only it had their memorable melodies or three-dimensional characters.
Don’t get me wrong: It has its moments. It’s really tough not to enjoy yourself when singers the quality of Natascia Diaz and Nkrumah Gatling have a duet. And Nicki Elledge nails the most complicated, whiplash-fast journey of the show in the rollercoaster of a solo “Girl in the Mirror.” The potent blend of ambition and fear in her eyes offers a glimpse of the humanity that could of been part of this show.
Equal representation, however, is not on the room-service menu of this particular establishment. Curiously, despite a chorus that sings of “the haves and have-nots,” we spend next to none of our time with the hotel’s staff, peaking into the private life of a grand total (hmm, there’s that word again…) of just one of them. The only two characters who appear to be written as black, as opposed to simply played by actors, perform an awkwardly jazz-handy number called “Maybe My Baby Loves Me” — and then disappear. And there are two gay characters, both of whom spend their time rather predatorily lusting after heterosexuals who have other partners. So there’s that.
Paul Tate DePoo III’s set and Colin K. Bills’s lights deserve a shout-out. They glitter and glow, do everything they’re expected to do. Does that make them grand? I don’t even know anymore…