BWW Interview: Kelly Crandall d'Amboise Sets Signature's GRAND HOTEL in Motion
At the heart of the musical Grand Hotel is a character that speaks no lines nor sings any lyrics. With 'velvet stairs, easy chairs, and perfumed air gently blowing,' the Grand Hotel Berlin may not be a character in the traditional meaning of the word, however, it is the catalyst which sets in motion the fate of every guest who walks through its opulent revolving doors. For choreographer Kelly Crandall d'Amboise, it is her job to provide that motion as the production begins performances this week at Signature Theatre.
"The lush score and movement are the pulse of the show. You have this hotel, which is a character unto itself, with a pulse that is embodied by this range of different characters and personalities," says d'Amboise. "Through the movement I'm hoping to help bring it alive, and give the audience a feel for the energy generated by the hotel."
Grand Hotel, which is based upon the 1932 Oscar winner for Best Picture of the same name, follows the patrons and staff of the Grand Hotel Berlin over a fateful weekend in 1928. The guests are an eclectic range of personalities including a fabled ballerina, terminally ill bookkeeper looking for a thrill, and a typist with dreams of Hollywood stardom. Meanwhile the ever-present hotel staff keep the hotel humming, while constantly observing the wealth-gap between many of the guests, the haves, and themselves, the have nots.
"Creating a vocabulary for Grand Hotel really starts with the ensemble," says d'Amboise. "The original Broadway production featured a big ensemble with a cast of 30, I believe. Our total cast size is 16, with an ensemble of 7. From the opening number on, our ensemble really creates the look and feel of the hotel. That allows us to fill the space with movement and see the hotel filled with action."
In addition to the range of personalities who occupy the hotel, the show's score features a wide range of musical styles paying homage to both its 1920s and European setting. There's the Charleston-inspired "Well Take A Glass," "The Grand Waltz," and the ballad "I Want To Go To Hollywood," just to name a few.
"What really makes the show both special and complex, are the different styles of music and movement, which again provides the vocabulary for the show in different veins. Because of that you get to see the different social classes in this hotel physicalized, along with the underlying tension that alone causes," says d'Amboise.
Adding to Grand Hotel's complexity is Signature Theatre itself. Patrons of the Shirlington staple know that no-two shows are ever setup the same. Whereas the original 1989 Broadway production of Grand Hotel was performed on a traditional proscenium stage, it is anyone's guess how Signature's Max Theatre will be arranged. One thing is for certain, it will be anything but traditional.
"Making the audience feel a part of the environment is what we love to do at Signature. Eric Schaeffer, our director, and Paul Tate DePoo III, our set designer, really wanted the audience to feel like they themselves were in the hotel witnessing the lives of these characters. The stage is a thrust, and sitting in the audience really feels like you're in the lobby of this Grand Dame" says d'Amboise.
If there is one aspect of the original production audiences may be hoping to see, it is the aforementioned number "We'll Take A Glass." Once described by The New York Times as a "death defying Charleston," the number cements and celebrates the relationship between two characters, the bookish accountant Otto and the suave, but penniless Baron Felix Von Gaigern. Thanks in part to PBS' Broadway Lost Treasures and YouTube; the number's original choreography has become quite legendary.
"It [We'll Take A Glass] is an exciting and daunting number for me to attempt, I'm such a fan of the original version. The challenge with every number in the show is to do justice to the material, while telling the story in a new way choreographically. At its core, 'We'll Take A Glass' is about Otto finding joy in his life and embracing it, and that's what we are hoping to capture," says d'Amboise. "The wonderful Bobby Smith is our Otto, so that makes my job a lot easier."
When not busy choreographing shows, d'Amboise also serves as an instructor at George Mason University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. She is also is a veteran of the Great White Way having worked with Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz. For now though, all attention is on Grand Hotel.
"To me, Grand Hotel is a hallmark of great musical theatre, in terms of how it moves," says d'Amboise. "This production has an ever-present ensemble, which encompasses all the people, the classes and the conflicts, in the story, and through that, the movement of the Grand Hotel."