Broadway buffs are hereby advised. You’ve got this weekend and next to catch what may well be the only big-stage, big-cast revival you’ll ever see of the multiple Tony-winning Grand Hotel, and though not a perfect production, the USC School Of Dramatic Arts has mounted a revival whose pluses far outweigh any minuses a picky theatergoer might find.
To be sure, Grand Hotel The Musical isn’t in the same league as its chief 1990 Tony competitor, the Best Musical-winning City Of Angels, which USC revived two years ago. Luther Davis’s book (based on Vicki Baum’s novel and play Menschen Im Hotel) is rather musty, and it’s hard to imagine today’s average 20ish Trojan finding in it the appeal of more recent, youth-oriented shows like Spring Awakening, The Wedding Singer, Hairspray, or Legally Blonde.
Still, few other musicals have more meaty roles than Grand Hotel, or as big an ensemble, both major selling points for a School Of Dramatic Arts. Add to that a mostly terrific cast-recording’s worth of songs (by Robert Wright, George Forrest, and Maury Yeston) including quite a few showstoppers, and ample opportunities for a choreographer to strut her stuff, and you’ve got a better than average musical—and a talent showcase to boot.
Though some performances end up stronger than others, there’s no real weak link in the cast assembled on the Bing Theatre stage, John Rubinstein’s direction is assured if not absolutely inspired, and whiz choreographer Lili Fuller gives us an imaginative, eclectic series of dance sequences executed by a fully-committed cast.
Narrated by cynical, morphine-shooting, walking-wounded WWI vet Doctor Otternschlag (a superb Cole Cuomo with great big baritone pipes), Grand Hotel introduces us to a cast of characters made famous on film by the likes of Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.
Hotel guests include fading ballerina Grusinskaya (a striking Jade Johnson), giving the latest in a string of “farewell” performances despite a notable lack of audience demand; Raffaela (rich-voiced Shefali Deshpande), her devoted (i.e. lesbian) personal assistant; the handsome but debt-ridden Baron Felix von Gaigern (handsome Tyler Miclean with a Broadway-caliber tenor); stenographer Flaemmchen, who dreams of Hollywood stardom (a vibrant Claire Blackwelder); textile mill general manager Preysing with money troubles of his own (Turner Frankosky, appropriately shady); and terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Richy Storrs, simply spectacular), determined to go out with a bang.
As for the hotel staff, there’s general manager Rohna (a suitably smarmy Christopher Brady Thomas); assistant concierge Erik (charismatic charmer Erik Vogt-Nilsen), awaiting the birth of his first child; and the two Jimmys (the ebullient duo of Erik Hu and Sean Phillips), expatriate entertainers from the U.S.A.
Add to these attorney Zinnowitz (Judd Yort), theatre impresario Sandor (Dor Gvirtsman), ballet company manager Witt (Kevin Paley), a gangster posing as a chauffeur (Shane Paul McGhie), a pair of “Tootsies” (Hajin Cho and Kimberlee Holland), aptly nicknamed ladies’ room attendant Madame Peepee (Dani Haberman), maid Trude (Carlye Porrazzo), a police officer (Taubert Nadalini), a bellboy (Troy Peterson), an ensemble completed by Allison Aoun, Tucker Aust, Taylor Barry, Alicia Marie Beatty, Alica Benning, Henry Boyd, Molly Chiffer, Elena Dole, Caribay Franke, Bryn Graham, Brooke Lewis, Andio Manguray, Ashley Maimes, Maggie Nolting, Sami Nye, Katie Polley, Kevin Phan, Sarah Scotti, and you’ve got a cast of thirty-eight talented USC Trojans, the size of which no professional theater could possibly afford.
A fifteen-minute opening sequence introduces Grand Hotel’s large cast of characters with a bang, anchored by the rich, resonant vocals of Cuomo, last year’s Scenie-winning College/University Star Of The Year.
From then on, it’s one standout vocal performance after another, with Miclean earning the loudest and most deserved applause for a soaring “Love Can Happen” opposite Johnson and “We’ll Take A Glass Together” opposite Storrs, the latter proving himself a song-and-dance-man extraordinaire throughout. Cuomo too merits audience cheers for “I Waltz Alone.”
Other vocal highlights include Johnson’s “Fire And Ice” and “Bonjour Amour,” Deshpande’s “Villa On A Hill,” “What You Need,” and “How Can I Tell Her,” Blackwelder’s “Girl In The Mirror” and her duet with Storrs of “Who Couldn’t Dance With You,” and Frankosky’s “The Crooked Path” and “Merger Is On.”
Choreographer Fuller makes the most of her cast’s varying degrees of dance prowess in the jazzy “Girl In The Mirror, the German expressionist-influenced “The Crooked Path,” and heel-kicking moves of “The Grand Charleston,” the latter featuring Hu and Phillips’ terrific Jimmys, who shine also opposite Blackwelder in “Maybe My Baby.” Last but not least are a trio of standouts (dance captain Franke, Aust, and dance captain Boyd) as Life, Love, and Death in “Death/Bolero.”
Scenic designer Shelby Souza has filled the Bing stage with movable pillars and furniture pieces to take us from locale to locale at the Grand, though director Rubinstein’s decision to mime some props but not others proves problematic and distracting. Costume designer Hannah Kim deserves highest marks for one gorgeous period outfit after another, ensemble members changing costumes more times than I could possibly count. David Hernandez’s striking lighting design and Philip G. Allen’s crystal-clear sound design are both impeccable, as is Parmer Fuller’s musical direction. (Fuller conducts the production’s 18-piece professional orchestra as well.)
Additional program credits are awarded dialect coach Andrea Odinov Fuller, fight choreographer Edgar Landa, property master G. Austin Allen, and assistant director Grace Anaclerio, and many more.
Alice Politt is stage manager, assisted by Kelly Merritt and Meredith O’Gwynn.
Though not at the level of last year’s The Most Happy Fella or 2012’s City Of Angels, both of which benefited from stronger source material, Grand Hotel makes it clear once again why so many Trojan grads go on to major careers on Broadway, on National Tours, in regional productions, and in film/TV as well. As for anyone who wants the rare chance to see Grand Hotel The Musical on a scale no professional theater could probably hope to match, the time is now…and well worth a visit to the USC campus.
Bing Theatre, University Of Southern California, Los Angeles.
April 3, 2014