You'll Live the High Life at Encores! Grand Hotel
James Snyder, Brandon Uranowitz, and Heléne Yorke bring opulence to a 1989 musical receiving its first New York revival.
If New York City Center Encores! was looking for a game-changer in its 25th anniversary season, they've successfully found it with Grand Hotel. Gone are the pesky stylistic trappings of past Encores! shows; those ever-present black script binders and long, skinny mic stands that block the view are nowhere to be found. This Grand Hotel, with a book by Luther Davis, score by Robert Wright, George Forrest, and Maury Yeston, doesn't even pretend to be a concert. It is a fully polished production with a showstopper at every turn.
This 1989 musical is a hard show to pull off, with a chilling plot driven by almost nonstop music and dance, and featuring at least six principal characters whose stories overlap. Moreover, there are theatrical ghosts — ever-present memories of director-choreographer Tommy Tune's legendary original production and its cast — wherever you look. It's similarly hard to shake indelible memories like Michael Jeter's rubber-limbed Charleston "We'll Take a Glass Together."
Josh Rhodes, who directs and choreographs this production for Encores!, embraces the spectral forces to pay a loving homage to the original, while still creating his own stylish version. Collaborating with scenic designer Allen Moyer, the main focal point is a gold-trimmed grand staircase with a lush, blood red carpet. Ken Billington's lighting accentuates the mood with a trio of hanging chandeliers that ominously change color. Linda Cho's costumes help set the scene for us: It's Berlin, 1929, and we are in the lap of luxury.
The Baron Felix Von Gaigern (James Snyder) is hard up for cash and has a gangster on his tail. A dying Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Brandon Uranowitz) wants to spend his meager savings hobnobbing with the wealthy while trying to live it up before he's gone. Flaemmchen (Heléne Yorke), a poor typist for a loutish businessman (John Dossett) is determined to make it to America and become a movie star. Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Irina Dvorovenko), a ballerina who's seen better days, is secretly lusted after by her confidante, Raffaela (Natascia Diaz). Colonel Doctor Otternschlag (William Ryall), scarred and morphine-addicted after World War I, keeps a watchful eye on all parties. These stories intertwine over the course of a single weekend at the opulent Grand Hotel.
There's a dark quality to Grand Hotel that will surprise first-timers. This isn't exactly a happy story, nor is it a particularly well-told one. Davis's script is strange and dark (an excellently played moment toward the end involving Flaemmchen and her boss is particularly ghoulish in our #MeToo era), and prefers to tell, rather than show. Wright and Forrest's songs generally don't soar as high as you want them to.
What Tune did particularly well was imbue the piece with continuous movement. Rhodes sticks to the tried-and-true, to often stunning effect. There's action everywhere you look as porters, scullery workers, and telephone operators take up every inch of stage. A pair of tango dancers, Guadalupe Garcia and Junior Cervila, saunter across at various moments, performing sensuous, death-defying specialty routines that add to the setting's opulence.
The direction doesn't always escape the trappings of the material; the pace on opening night was a tad lethargic, accentuating the dourness of the story. But what Rhodes managed to bring out of his cast in two weeks of rehearsal sets a new high bar. They make up for any failings of material in spades, turning out highlight after highlight.
Snyder is suave and debonair as the Baron; it's no question why everyone would fall in love with him, especially as he hits the high notes in Yeston's gorgeous, soaring ballad "Love Can't Happen." Just as Jeter before him, Uranowitz conveys impressive gravitas as Kringelein, bringing down the house with his utterly amazing athletics during "We'll Take a Glass Together," (which Rhodes choreographs in very Tune-like style, complete with a roving limbo-stick to symbolize a bar). Yorke's moving desperation brings an air of sadness to her "Girl in the Mirror," and serves as a real gut-punch during her late-show scene with Dossett, a perfectly despicable villain.
This Grand Hotel, engaging and firing on most, if not always all, cylinders, could easily be moved to a Broadway house intact. For Encores!, it's a production that will be hard to top, and, to quote an iconic critic of the original production, you'll want to see it "twice more."