There’s a risk that comes from getting things off to the spine-tingling start with which the Donmar revival of “Grand Hotel — The Musical” begins, the brilliant and baleful opening number filling an intimate studio space with more people (17) than most of London’s far larger venues these days manage to afford. And if director Michael Grandage sometimes has to strain to see the audience through nearly two intermissionless hours of what amount to dramatic shards, so did Tommy Tune on a Broadway production 15 years ago. This latest staging isn’t so much the antithesis as a fascinating complement to that one.
Tune’s landmark 1989 production –possibly the most through-choreographed Broadway venture in my experience — can be said in retrospect to have displaced the Donmar aesthetic into the Broadway arena.
Tony Walton’s design, for instance, worked via suggestion and atmosphere and with a minimum of props, in a way that Christopher Oram’s work here further refines. The hotel of the title is represented primarily by an imposing sign and an Otto Dix-like mural along the back wall, against which Grandage can parade his motley lineup of Weimar-era Berliners, many of whom suggest a George Grosz caricature come to life.
It’s Grandage’s altogether laudable way, however, to avoid the broad brushstroke where possible, as made rendingly clear in his Olivier Award-winning Donmar “Merrily We Roll Along.” Two of those leads are back on view here. That very gift, oddly, proves a sticking point of sorts for “Grand Hotel.” The fact is, cliches are cliches no matter how stylishly they are cloaked, and this long-aborning musical ladles them on with a lack of subtlety that no director, however sensitive, can wholly forestall.
There’s very little that is fresh, for instance, about the conception of the typist Flaemmchen (Helen Baker), who yearns to leave behind her cold-water apartment — a place where, she informs us, “if things get broken, they stay broken” — for Hollywood. A sort of Sally Bowles in the making, Flaemmchen is a dramatic type who resists the possibility for forensic investigation that is the Donmar’s great bequest.
So, too, does fading ballerina Grushinskaya, to whom Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio brings a ceaselessly upturned chin and a burnished vibrato that makes much more of the Russian-named Frenchwoman’s solo showstopper, “Bonjour Amour,” than was ever the case in New York. (“Amour” is one of a handful of songs by Maury Yeston that capably flesh out the somewhat colorless original contributions of Robert Wright and George Forrest.)
Mastrantonio brings necessary wit to a part that still imposes near-impossible demands, not least in hinting at Grushinskaya’s onetime choreographic finesse. Stepping where Tune so famously trod, dancer-turned-choreographer Adam Cooper (“Swan Lake”) attempts to solve the problem by disguising Grushinskaya’s movements behind a line of performers above which the actress’s flailing arms look not a little silly.
One could as easily dispense with the attempts to inject some class enmity into the proceedings, which proved hard enough to take in the Tune production. Stomping about the stage announcing “some have/some have not,” the scullery workers show no one at their finest. Similarly this musical’s erstwhile paean to life’s possibilities, “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” is here more chaotic than celebratory. (Those sitting in the front rows might want to lean back lest one of the chorus inadvertently high-kick someone in the noggin in what is the most dance-heavy musical the Donmar has hosted to date.)
Cooper’s contribution is on firmer footing with the hint of the goosestep with which the first number concludes. Later on, he and Grandage pay clever homage to Tune, positioning four performers in a way that replicates the revolving doors that were so important a visual leitmotif in the original.
If “Grand Hotel” can be overfamiliar in outline, Grandage nonetheless sees to it that, moment-by-moment, the evening pays off. Pursuing the Donmar penchant for casting roles younger than usual, the director offers a fine showcase to several “Merrily” alums: an all-but-unrecognizable Daniel Evans is in unusually fine voice as the ailing bookkeeper, Kringelein, whose Jewishness has placed him on the outside of a decadent society from which he wants out.
Playing the duplicitous Baron who genuinely falls for Grushinskaya, Julian Ovenden lends his soaring tenor to another portrait of callowness (Franklin in “Merrily”) that builds to a riveting breakdown number in the Baron’s climactic “Roses at the Station.”
Less showy but equally fine is Gillian Bevan as Raffaela, Grushinskaya’s more-than-devoted confidante, who brings flesh-and-blood pathos to a part that can degenerate into easy posturing. As libidinous businessman Preysing, who makes a purse-lipped yet queasy play for Flaemmchen, the wonderful Martyn Ellis looks as if he could have stepped out of one of the Max Beckmann paintings of the period, while Gary Raymond’s battered, morphine-addicted doctor sets the right sardonic mood for a piece that in itself doesn’t surprise even as Grandage and company bring it to stirring, grim-faced life.