Nothing stays still seems to be the key message in this breathtaking new production of Grand Hotel at the Southwark Playhouse. It is constantly moving and the performances, music, singing and dancing combine in what is probably as close as is humanly possible to musical theatre perfection.
The musical tells the story of a series of characters from a guided age that feel like they are from an alien world on one hand, but on the other you can’t help see some relevance to the current age of austerity, economic and political refugees and rage against the one per cent.
Grand Hotel is based on the 1929 Vicki Baum novel and the 1932 Hollywood film (which served as a vehicle to squeeze as many stars as possible into a single film). The plot, or what there is of it, revolves around the events and people staying in a luxury hotel in 1928 Berlin.
There is a fading prima ballerina, a dying Jewish accountant, a sexy but broke Baron, a drug addicted doctor, a typist dreaming of success and a crooked businessman. But their stories are less important than the series of chance encounters they have with each other and the hotel staff. The music, stories and movement is often fragmented, but overall it comes together remarkably well.
The work had a long gestation period after its first outing, with its book by Luther Davis and music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, failed to reach Broadway in the 1950s. It finally opened on Broadway in 1989, heavily revised and with additional music and lyrics from Maury Yeston. It was imagined the piece as a non-stop dance and musical extravaganza.
This production maximises the potential of the piece starting with its ingenious traverse stage that pushes the audience close to the action. It provides the opportunity for plenty of comings and goings and gives the sense that you are having an intimate encounter with the characters. It also seemed to improve the acoustics. You have to admire a production when you can hear almost every line from a performer singing a complicated counterpoint line while deftly handling some tricky choreography.
Every performance in this piece is flawless. Scott Garnham as the Baron has the difficult job of switching from a thief to a heroic lover with the song Love Can’t Happen, a show-stopping number complete with sustained high notes. It’s a musical Everest that he scales effortlessly. Italian musical star Christine Grimandi gives an electric performance in her UK debut as the fading ballerina and object of his affection. There is also a warmth between Garnham and Grimaldi when they are on stage together that also makes their characters somewhat believable.
Valerie Cutko as the ballerina’s faithful (and curiously obsessive) assistant gives the show some poignant moments with a love that dare not speak its name.
Victoria Serra is wonderful as the typist dreaming of going to Hollywood. Her big number “Girl In The Mirror” which explodes into a song and dance spectacular is one of several that are unforgettable for their energy, precision and movement.
George Rae as the dying Jewish accountant manages to transform into an acrobatic song and dance man with a soaring vocals. And he isn’t the only flexible one. Newcomers Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes make their professional debuts as the two Jimmy’s astounding the audience with their ability to navigate the tight traverse while singing and dancing (sitting in the front row is not for the faint-hearted in this production).
Jacob Chapman gives a musical quality to the crooked businessman role. He cuts a dashing figure which makes his transformation in the second half of the show all the more menacing.
And as as a late replacement, David Delve as the doctor and sometime droll narrator of the piece gives the piece much humour.
But this is a work that doesn’t want to leave you too comfortably. One moment you are wowed by a thrilling number and the next you are wallowing in death. Things move quickly at the Grand, but it looks and sounds great and is a hell of a ride.
Directed by Thom Southerland, choreographed by Lee Proud, music direction by Michael Bradley and produced by Danielle Tarento, Grand Hotel is a two hour musical and dance extravaganza to remember. It runs to 5 September.
Photos: Production photos