“People come and go. Nothing ever happens.” It’s the most unlikeliest of statements to describe the impeccable Grand Hotel, a five-star thrill of a musical that has just opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse.
Forget the capital’s over-priced West End theatres. Southwark and producer Danielle Tarento, are currently turning out hit shows that are enthralling, beautifully crafted, wonderfully sung and superbly acted by companies of unfamiliar names.
It’s a winning formula. For Grand Hotel, a collaboration of talent from yesteryear (book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by George Forrest, Robert Wright and Maury Yeston) gave Tarento, her favourite director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud the foundations to build a sensational show.
Southwark’s Large doesn’t, despite the name, offer a roomy performance area and, after being swept away with 85-minutes of sublime entertainment, I couldn’t help but wonder how even more spectacular this production would be if given a bit of extra breathing space in a (slightly) bigger West End venue.
Because Grand Hotel, with its Broadway credentials and a clutch of Tony Awards to its name, has been revived and upgraded to super deluxe standard but squeezed into boutique and bijou accommodation.
From the evocative opening number, The Grand Parade, we are swept up in a melodrama involving both the hotel’s staff and its well-heeled guests.
It’s 1928 and, while Christopher Isherwood was writing about the seedy decadence of pre-war Berlin, Vicki Baum’s novel opened a door on the opulence of life in the city’s most sumptuous hotel.
Below a stunning chandelier we are plunged into the hustle and bustle of the hotel, ruled with steely deference by general manager Rohna (such a realistic portrayal by James Gant that he could probably walk into a job at The Savoy).
And the guests? The whole of life is here – from resident former WWI soldier, the cynical Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, who opens the story by shooting up morphine, to financially impoverished young baronet Felix von Gaigern, desperate businessman Preysing, a dying young Jewish accountant and pregnant secretary-cum-aspiring actress Flaemmchen.
But, by far the most glamorous, is fading prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya who, despite the Russian name, is French and travelling with her Italian assistant, Raffaela.
In the original 1932 film Grushinskaya was played by the enigmatic Greta Garbo (and I couldn’t help thinking that Valerie Cutko’s mannish costume for Raffaela was a nod to the great actress).
Here we have another grande dame. Italian musical theatre’s Christine Grimandi makes a memorable debut on the English stage, sweeping in with the elegance and hauteur of an old school star.
Her heartfelt performance captures the fragility and nobility of this once great dancer who, unexpectedly, finds fleeting love during a night in the hotel.
The guests’ interwoven stories are fully played out while David Delve as the embittered Otternschlag, offers wry and withering comment.
Grand Hotel is a splendid ensemble piece with uniformly top notch performances. The sweeping story is tragic, poignant, playful and witty.
Delve, who stepped into the role just a couple of weeks before it opened, is tremendous. The doctor’s sardonic expressions say more than a dozen lines of dialogue.
Scott Garnham’s doomed Baron is the drama’s romantic anti-hero. His Roses At The Station and Love Can’t Happen are powerfully sung and are packed with emotion (was that a sob I heard?).
The effervescent Victoria Serra lights up the stage as the ambitious and bubbly Flaemmchen whose yearning for a better life leads her on a troubled journey.
There are some great set pieces and stylish staging. A final scene with Garnham walking through rose petals has echoes of the equally tragic Madam Butterfly while Serra’s Girl In The Mirror is packed with pizazz.
A pacy, atmospheric and masterly production. Visit the Grand Hotel for an unforgettable experience.
Make your reservations now. Running at Southwark Playhouse until September 5.
Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland deliver a super deluxe revival of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Grand Hotel, at the Southwark Playhouse.