Of all the productions currently showing on the West End, there are very few that opened there without previewing or transferring from somewhere smaller. It may be from Broadway, it may be following a UK tour, or it may be from a smaller venue so that the creative team can iron out any kinks before making the big leap. Indeed, a number of these smaller venues have made a name for themselves by acting as a springboard for shows to transfer into the West End – The Young Vic, Menier Chocolate Factory and Chichester Festival Theatre are all well known for this. It seems as though Southwark Playhouse is now also staging works that seem to be destined for West End greatness. Grand Hotel is one of those.
Set in 1928, The Grand Hotel Berlin is renowned for its opulent service catering to only the wealthiest of guests. The staff pride themselves on the very best experience, despite the vast difference between their empty pockets and the overflowing riches of their patrons. But even the guests have money problems of their own and, as Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag (David Delve) so aptly utters in the opening number, “There’s nothing more useless on this planet than a nobleman without money.”
Thom Southerland directs a cast with all manner of vocal expertise (it seems as though at least half were plucked from the Les Misérables company back-catalogue) and is obviously not a beginner to musical theatre – the cast are well-versed at acting the song and transfer from the music to the storyline with fluidity and grace. Lee Newby’s set is evocative of a 1920s Gatsby ballroom, despite being minimalist so as not to detract from the performers. The idea of having the audience on two sides in a catwalk-type formation serves to add to the show’s glamour.
Forrest and Wright’s original score with Maury Yeston’s additions is nothing short of inspired. The variety of styles don’t clash and jumping from Charleston to Jazz Hot, from Viennese waltz to Parisian chanson, appears totally natural, as if all musicals are capable of these seamless transitions (they are most definitely not). The score itself sounds like an homage to Sondheim: a number of the songs wouldn’t seem out of place in some of his works. The intertwining melodies in the opening number are reminiscent of the opening to Company and the sinister repetition of the strings in ‘Roses at the Station’ could go hand in hand with many of the songs from Sweeney Todd. These musical influences, along with key songs that are reprised throughout the production, act as a musical glue that binds the music together.
It’s difficult to pick stand-out performances in this cast, as there aren’t any obvious weak links. Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Christine Grimandi) and Flaemmchen (Victoria Serra) lead the ladies with contrasting yet convincing performances. Grimandi is an internationally renowned ballerina and portrays her character here with the distinguished air of Sophia Loren or Edith Piaf. Serra, by comparison, reminds me more of Roxie out of Chicago, eager for fame at any price. The men are equally strong too, with Baron Felix von Gaigern (Scott Garnham) and Hermann Preysing (Jacob Chapman) as the two stand-outs. Garnham’s strong tenor vocals impress as the loveable rogue Gaigern whose selfish motives eventually breed the most selfless of acts; Chapman is equally strong as Preysing transforms into a sinister creature born from greed and despair. There is something akin to Sunset Boulevard’s Joe in Chapman’s rendition of ‘The Crooked Path’.
The only criticism I can really muster on this performance is in the book. The storylines don’t quite have time to provide the needed background for some of the characters and so don’t generate the desired audience emotion. Gaigern and Grushinskaya’s fast-paced love affair loses something in translation, since we as an audience don’t easily pick up Gaigern’s love for her since his childhood. Given the slightly short duration of this musical (100 minutes without an interval), I can’t help but wonder at how magnificent the whole show could be if the book let its characters develop a little bit further. Having said that, I predict great things for this musical and hope to see it again on an altogether bigger stage in the future.
Grand Hotel is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 5 September. For more information and tickets see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo: Aviv Ron.