The show is titled Grand Hotel. But if you're picturing a fancy marquee and a deferential doorman, you're in the wrong theatrical hostelry. Although based on the 1932 MGM flick of the same name, this musical version is a different — and often mesmerizing — experience.
As produced by Mercury Summer Stock, Grand Hotel is a hazy, ever-shifting collection of character hors d'oeuvres, some served extra hot, with others chilly as ice. The movement is stylized, and the set design is minimalist. And even though a couple of the performances lack depth, the company manages to make this challenging piece work remarkably well.
Almost 25 years ago, a team of three authors — Luther Davis, Robert Wright, and George Forrest — combined their talents to write the music, lyrics, and book for the show. And apart from the haunting tunes that begin and end the production, the jazz-influenced songs are nothing you'll hum to yourself as you leave the theater.
But director Pierre-Jacques Brault has captured the slightly skewed and morally bankrupt lust for money, sex, and power that infuse Berlin in 1928. A year before the Depression will hit and Germany will tilt towards fanaticism, the people in this hotel are marvelously self-absorbed. And that makes for some juicy vignettes.
If there is a center to this show, it is the young Baron Felix Von Gaigern, handsome and secretly penniless, around whom swirl many of the major characters. For example, an old Jewish accountant named Otto Kringelein has landed at the hotel, sick, dying, and ready to immerse himself in luxury in his last days. But when management gives him a stiff arm, with a decided whiff of anti-Semitism, the Baron uses his influence to help.
The multi-tasking Baron is also busy trying to evade a gangster to whom he's in debt. Then he eyes an aging ballerina named Grushinskaya. She is in Berlin trying to roll through a couple of last performances, but it's her glittering necklace that catches the desperate Baron's eye.
Meanwhile the ballerina's loyal aide, Raffaela, confesses her love for her boss, although the star remains clueless about her assistant's true feelings. And in another subplot, a young typist with the sultry name Flaemmchen ("Little Flame") is hot to make it in Hollywood. So she hooks up with a businessman, Hermann, who may transport her in that direction, although he is preoccupied trying not to lie to shareholders about the failure of his company.
It's a lot of heavy lifting, character-wise, and the largest weakness resides in the Baron, played by a much too fresh-faced Nate Huntley. Although he sings well, Huntley lacks the cool confidence and the early rot of dissipation that the character requires. Otherwise, the cast generally performs admirably. Holly Feiler is a credible Grushinskaya, and her solo "Bonjour Amour" is filled with the giddy joy of late-found love. As Raffaela, Amiee Collier is deeply affecting in her two songs.
Emily Grodzik makes Flaemmchen come alive in "I Want to Go to Hollywood," and Dan DiCello is a thick and gruff presence as Hermann. Handling the narrator duties in the guise of a morphine-addicted doctor, Mort Goldman looks scary, but a number of his line readings are flat. But Brian Marshall as Otto lights up the stage when he dances to the exuberant "We'll Take a Glass Together."
Director Brault echoes many of the choreographic moves from the Broadway production, which is fair. But he doesn't make much of the two African Americans, Jimmy 1 and Jimmy 2, played by Eugene Sumlin and Marcus Martin. Dressed as bellhops, they dance, sing, and serve as barmen, but not in a focused way.
As events slalom around joy and tragedy, the play leaves you thinking about the unpredictable arcs of life and love. In that way, we are all Berliners.