Original cast members reunited for a star-studded immersive concert reading of the show on Monday night.

By: Feb. 27, 2024
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The intimate cabaret space at 54 Below was transformed into Berlin’s Grand Hotel on Monday night. The kick-off performance of GRAND HOTEL: THE 35TH ANNIVERSARY ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST REUNION CONCERT on February 26th was exuberant, with much of the star-studded original cast reviving their roles. They made creative use of 54 Below’s space, with the entire venue being used at different points. The immersive staging heightened the already excellent singing and music, making the show a transcendent experience. Walter Willison, who introduced the show, and also directed and produced it, explained that they were unable to mount the entirety of the choreography and staging, but were hoping to give us enough of a taste of it to give the general idea, which they succeeded in. The choreography (originally done by Broadway legend Tommy Tune, who was present in the audience on Monday night and celebrating his 85th birthday) is such a vital part of the show, with two tango dancers amplifying the themes of the show. However, smart choices, such as having the two tango dancers glide across the back of the room at various points, finally making their way to the stage for a more full dance number on “I Waltz Alone,” made the pared down version feel complete. (The dancing, by Michael Choi and Vanda Polakova, was excellent; it’s no easy feat to gracefully tango your way down a narrow space with, but they somehow managed to make it look effortless, moving their bodies fluidly while navigating around chairs.) The concert version featured choreography by Michael Notardonato, who also served as associate director.

The production wove in tidbits of dialogue and narration (done in perfect wry deadpan by Willison, who also played Colonel Doctor Otternschlag) to bring together the score, which they sung in its entirety. Grand Hotel has such a lovely score. It’s alternately haunting, joyful and desperate, sometimes all at once, as in  the number “I Want to Go to Hollywood” for example. That number was skillfully sung by Susan Wood Duncan, who played Flaemmchen in the touring cast. The reunion cast included many members of original cast: Karen Akers, Timothy Jerome, Bob Stillman, David JacksonDavid Andrew White, and even original bass player Ray Kilday. Ken Jennings stepped in as Otto Kringelein, leading the company in a moving “We’ll Take a Glass Together!” (A touching use of creative immersive staging: While that song was sung, some of the company filled the bar area, mingling and singing directly to patrons seated in that section as though the bar was part of the Grand Hotel bar.) Jennifer Bassey Davis was magnificent as Elizaveta Grushinskaya, as was Akers as Rafaella, playing her lovelorn assistant, trying to protect her from the world. The haunting character-motivated songs require some serious acting chops, and the entire cast delivered. In a touching note, Willison started the show by reading a few lines from the Vicki Baum novel the show is based on, and ended it by pointing out the connection each cast member had to the original production and national tour, including two members (Harper Lee Andrews and Susie McCollum) playing roles their mothers originated. This 35-year-old work is still as fresh and vibrant as ever, and it was clear by their chemistry, as Willison noted, that the cast has remained good friends with each other. They closed out the night with a touching Happy Birthday to Tommy Tune, and a reprise of “We’ll Take a Glass Together” sung by the entire company.

This reviewer was lucky enough to see the 2018 Encores revival at New York City Center, but I think it’s high time this work was put back on the Broadway stage with a full production. The score and show itself are so moving, so poignant, so timeless, it would be a shame if we had to wait five more years for a production like this again.

If you're fast, there are two more performances tonight at 7 and 9:30 pm, including a livestream of the 7 pm show. If you see this in time, I can't recommend it enough, even if you're a newbie to Grand Hotel.

Visit 54 Below’s website for more upcoming shows.