I hated Grand Hotel at the Dominion in 1992. It seemed confused, distant, under-scored and under-lit and there wasn’t a character I could engage with. As tickled up by Thom Southerland at Southwark Playhouse, it’s the exact opposite – you really can feel like a fly on the wall of a luxury hotel as the characters whirl past in a danse macabre of intrigue involving sex, lies and ticker tape as fortunes rise and fall in the shadows, and love blooms and dies in the light of the chandelier.
This is the second time Southerland has done justice to the work of composer Maury Yeston who provided most of the newer and better songs since that dismal outing at the Dominion: the smartly re-imagined Titanic is now followed by an impassioned and concentrated Grand Hotel which both makes the complex storylines more accessible, but moves them on so urgently you have barely chance to catch your breath before the next one unfolds in your lap.
This momentum is driven equally by the seven-piece band which Michael Bradley leads with a baton – unlike most fringe MDs nodding from a keyboard – and boy can you feel the difference as he polishes Simon Lee’s new-minted orchestrations to a high shine, and by Lee Proud’s extraordinary, technically brilliant and dramatically pointed choreography that goes so far beyond period-predictable Charleston and Lindy Hop to drive the stories forward at a cracking pace: when the Baron and Kringelein bring their paso doble to its climax on chairs I wanted to stand and cheer, but the plot – always the plot – had another handbrake turn to frustrate deserved applause. But I was grinning with delight.
If you need proof that dance can make you happy, watch the trim two-stepping of the ‘Jimmies’ played by Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes. Although it’s a dance-driven show – in a narrow traverse setting which makes the choreography even more excitingly edgy – there is some glorious singing and both George Rae as an infectiously excited but hesitant Mr Bean of a Kringelein and Scott Garnham as the bankrupt Baron deliver performances to anticipate brilliant careers, Garnham already sings like a star.
Danielle Tarento’s casting is ingenious: it is of course impossible to imagine any staged depiction of the late Weimar Republic not enhanced by the kohl eyeliner and angular poses of Valerie Cutko but here as the fading ballerina’s seraphically and sapphically devoted companion she finds both her perfect role, and her voice. The invitation to Italian actress Christine Grimandi to make her London debut works brilliantly and she pirouettes carefully from her scenes with Cutko to her extraordinarily believable liaison with Garnham.
Under all this glitter the Flaemmchen of Victoria Serra as an ambitious stenographer who’s aiming at Hollywood burns just a little less brightly than you might expect given she’s the nearest thing Grand Hotel has to Sally Bowles, but her clinches with Jacob Chapman as the powerful businessman who has plans for her when his marriage and merger hit the rocks, are superbly vivid.
Well worth seeing, it may be another twenty years before it comes round again.
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