Let's step back in time to 1958: writer Luther Wright and song-writers George Forrest and Robert Wright wanted to follow up their Broadway hit KISMET with a musical based on the Vicki Baum novel and MGM film GRAND HOTEL, retitled AT THE GRAND. KISMET leading lady Joan Deiner was to star (and her husband was to direct) but when Paul Muni was cast too the book underwent changes to make his role bigger. But Muni was unhappy, feeling Deiner was getting preferential treatment from her husband and the show died on the West Coast.
In 1988 director/choreographer Tommy Tune was asked to revisit it and he made the show more conceptual and play with no interval. The two Wrights and Dixon balked at his changes so Tune fired them! He gave the score to NINE composer Maury Yeston to rejig the lyrics and add several songs of his own. The book was rewritten by Peter Stone who refused to take a writing credit.
Tune's black and gold minimalist production ran on Broadway for over 2 years, winning five Tony Awards, although not for score or book. Still smarting from their sacking, Forrest & Wright blocked any cast album for over two years - too late for David Carroll who played the Baron as he died from a pulmonary embolism in the recording studio.
I saw the show again in 2000 at the Guildhall school performed by final year students but finally 'connected' with it when Michael Grandage directed a thrilling Olivier award-winning production at the Donmar in 2004 with Julien Ovenden as the Baron, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Grushinskaya, Helen Baker as Flaemmchen and Daniel Evans as Kringelein.
Since then there has been another Guildhall production last year and now we are invited to check in again at the Southwark Playhouse from the same team who gave us Yeston's TITANIC last year. Staged as a traverse production, it was a production that was inventive and enjoyable but it suffered at the end from a striving for profundity that was misplaced. Sometimes a musical is *just* a musical.
Most of the budget looks like it has gone on a massive chandelier which hangs above the playing area although Lee Newby's tiled floor summons up visions of a bygone elegance. Sadly it's a bit of a rundown Grand Hotel as the only furniture it had was chairs and a table but the cast summoned up enough business to detract from the lack of set.
The eight-piece orchestra under Michael Bradley made the score sound great and there was atmospheric lighting from Derek Anderson. Director Thom Sutherland maintains a through-line of near-desperation for all the show's characters who are all facing their own demons: Preysing faces financial ruin, Baron Felix von Gaigern faces physical danger through owed debts to gangsters, Grushinskaya faces the end of her ballet career, Kringelein faces the end of his life and Flaemmchen faces her unwanted pregnancy.
The cast have a good company feel which serves well in the ensemble numbers but the unstarry cast sometimes struggle to stand out in the larger-than-life roles. Victoria Serra was vibrant as the Hollywood-sighted Flaemmschen but I didn't feel she captured the character's vulnerability. Although too young for the role, I liked George Rae's dying-but-optimistic Kringelein and Italian musicals diva Christine Grimandi was fine as the tempestuous Grushenskaya although she was unevenly paired with Scott Garnham's Baron. Although well sung, he wasn't terribly charismatic and the Baron needs to have it in spades as he is the glue between all the other characters.
Lee Proud's choreography was inventive within the confines of the space and none more so in the Baron's final song "Roses At The Station" where he moves between handfuls of rose petals hurled by the other cast members, moving closer all the time to his own destiny.
Sutherland badly fumbles the end of the show however: the show ends with the hotel's staff reprising their surly song "Some Have, Some Have Not" only this time in German, hinting at the coming rise of the brutish under-class thanks to the Nazis. All well and good, but here Sutherland has them rough up the lead characters, piling up their suitcases and divesting them of their coats and keepsakes. Rather than illuminating the moment, it felt like Sutherland was ripping off the productions of CABARET by Sam Mendes and Rufus Norris which both ended with concentration camp imagery.
Despite this I still enjoyed seeing the show again and would urge you to see it if you never have before. GRAND HOTEL plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 5th September,