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BWW Review: GRAND HOTEL at Signature Theatre

BWW Review: GRAND HOTEL at Signature Theatre
The company of Signature Theatre's production of Grand Hotel.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There are certain things that really bother me in theater. One of the biggest is when a theater company that is capable of brilliance presents a show that should be a perfect fit - and unfortunately ultimately delivers a final product that does not meet my expectations.

At least for me, despite some good elements, Signature Theatre is in that predicament right now with its current offering Grand Hotel. Here we have a show in which the original staging (under Tommy Tune) featured tons of style and tension. There is plenty of style in Paul Tate Depoo III's set depicting the grandest of the grand hotels in Berlin, Germany. Complete with two staircases and an elegant lobby, the production looks great. However, there is more to any theatrical presentation than just the set.

The Luther Davis book introduces us to the inhabitants of Grand Hotel and what a cast of characters are present! There is our overseer Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag (Lawrence Redmond). He survived a mustard gas attack and being hit with shrapnel in WWI so now he only has one eye and walks with a cane. Next is the overdramatic dancing diva prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Natacia Diaz) and her longtime companion Raffaela (Crystal Mosser). Raffaela knows the ballerina is washed up, but refuses to tell her. We also have General Director Preysing (Kevin McAllister) who is trying to keep his company from going bankrupt after a Boston merger fails. Speaking of money troubles, Baron Felix von Geigern (Nkrumah Gatling) is up to his ears in debt. He is advised by one of his creditors' henchman to do what he needs to do to get the money or else. There's also Flaemmchen (Nicki Elledge). She's a secretary, but really wants to become a movie star - and ultimately will do anything to get there. Last, but certainly not least, is the bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Bobby Smith). He has checked himself out of the hospital to spend what he thinks are his last days in the Grand Hotel.

With that much set up and an abundance of local color in the story, you would think there would be lots of tension - both sexually and otherwise - between the characters. Unfortunately, that is not the case in this production.

Nkrumah Gatling might be the biggest culprit of lacking tension. His scenes with Diaz should have a seductive tone, yet they don't. When his character is called to seduce Diaz's in what I consider to be the best song in the show ("Love Can't Happen") there isn't any believable seduction in Gatling's performance. Gatling is a wonderful singer, but his acting simply isn't strong enough to make me believe that Grushinskaya would ever fall for him as the Baron.

BWW Review: GRAND HOTEL at Signature Theatre
Natascia Diaz in Signature Theatre's production of Grand Hotel.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

On the plus side, Natascia Diaz gives the show a welcome shot of energy with Grushinskaya's big song "Bonjour Amour". I also totally got the arc of her character from beginning to end.

I enjoyed Nicki Elledge's perkiness in "Girl in the Mirror" and because of Kevin McAllister's strong performance as Preysing their scenes together were beleivable and had the needed tension.

Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer paces the show maybe just a tad too brisk for my liking - making the dramatic points in the story not as strong and obvious as they should be. The one exception to this is the performance he gets from Bobby Smith as Kringelein. At least for me, this is the one storyline where I actually cared for one of the characters and, of course, Smith just melts your heart in "Table with a View."

I do feel that the production could have benefited from a larger orchestration. In this case you have a show that is scored like a movie. The songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics, by Maury Yeston have a considerable size to them. The show is almost fully underscored. Peter Matz's original orchestrations featured a twenty two-piece orchestra, including two grand pianos and a sizable string section. Signature is using an orchestration that was created for London's Donmar Warehouse by Paul McKibbons, which cuts Matz's charts down to just seven players. The orchestra, ably conducted by Evan Rees, does their best with what they are given to play but I really miss all the brass and strings that were in the original charts. I understand budgets and everything that go into making these kinds of decisions but in this case the music I felt lacked the size it required for full affect.

On the positive side Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch preserves Jack Lee's original vocal arrangements throughout. The ensemble sounds nice and full with some excellent harmonies.

Kelly Crandall d'Amboise's choreography is full of energy in such numbers as "We'll Take a Glass Together," but in some cases I was left asking "Why is there choreography here?" Redmond's "I Waltz Alone" is one example. Sometimes just a character delivering a song is enough.

Ultimately Signature Theatre's Grand Hotel isn't as grand as it maybe should have been, but Diaz and Smith in particular make the show well worth seeing.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Grand Hotel runs through May 19, 2019 at Signature Theatre's Max space. The venue is located at 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington VA. For tickets, click here.

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