Peter Schneider, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and head of Disney Animation, guided “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aida” to Broadway. Before he left Disney in 2001, his achievements were on an epic scale, so it’s an intriguing surprise to see him helming a revival of 1989 Tony winner “Grand Hotel” at the 276-seat Colony Theater. Claiming an intimate production lets him get closer to the creative process, Schneider applies visual ingenuity to this modern reworking of the 1932 Greta Garbo-John Barrymore film, pouring on dances, moving actors with bustling speed and sporadically blinding theatergoers to weaknesses in the show’s book and score.
“Grand Hotel,” despite its long run on Broadway, encountered a cold critical reception at the outset and became known as the show that was miraculously rescued by Tommy Tune’s choreographic and directorial touches. Schneider, with the talented aid of choreographer Cate Caplin and musical director Michael Reno, wisely follows Tune’s razzle-dazzle approach.
The score, by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, is bland, explaining action without illuminating it, and there are times, especially when the story begins to achieve momentum, that the songs feel completely irrelevant.
Story’s set in 1928 Berlin. A fast-paced opening introduces us to multiple key characters: We meet the Doctor (Michael McCarty), who has no further reason for living, and Otto Kringelein (Jason Graae), a dying man eager to soak up exciting experiences before he passes on. Also registered at the hotel is the Baron (Robert J. Townsend), a suave, handsome and dangerously impoverished jewel thief; Grushinskaya (Cynthia Beckert), a fading ballerina; pregnant typist Flaemmchen (Beth Malone), hoping to find Hollywood stardom; and Preysing (Dink O’Neal), a surly businessman battling bankruptcy.
As we get our bearings with the principals, two gracefully athletic ballroom dancers (Cate Caplin and Gary Franco) supply connective movement. Two others, known as the Jimmys (Chris Payne Dupre and Mike Irizarry), break into crowd-pleasing steps on “Maybe My Baby Loves Me,” while Malone is delightful doing “Girl in the Mirror.” These highlights divert attention from Luther Davis’ sketchy, scattered book, which rarely works up emotion or allows us to feel anything for the characters.
Matters improve as we get to know Graae’s insecure Otto Kringelein. Graae, always an outstanding singer, subdues his well-known manic side and makes us understand his almost virginal excitement at forming new friendships. The evening’s funniest moments occur when he dances with Malone, blundering and bumping into her and discovering his own joyous capacity for life as the dance progresses. Graae even brings validity to the script’s unintentionally comic philosophical point: “Love resides in people, not in buildings.”
Townsend, mustached and dapper in Garry D. Lennon’s slick suit, red ascot and matching handkerchief, rationalizes his light fingers by saying, “I’m not a thief by nature, only by necessity.” Necessity, in the form of a lethal creditor who threatens to cut off his legs, prompts him to sneak into ballerina Grushinskaya’s room and steal her jewels. Unexpectedly, love develops between the two, causing her to remark, “You’re so young — I have toe shoes older than you.” Although it takes too long for the show to emphasize Townsend’s extraordinary singing voice, his rendition of “Love Can’t Happen” is worth the wait.
Townsend’s vocal superiority also transforms “Roses at the Station” into a theatrically thrilling interlude, even if it arrives after he’s been fatally shot. He and Beckert, despite a shortage of sensuality, still have dramatic potential that remains unexplored for the rest of the play, and we can’t help wishing for further embellishment of their story.
As Preysing, the businessman who temporarily talks Flaemmchen into becoming his mistress, Dink O’Neal is appropriately unpleasant. Dana Reynolds, portraying the woman secretly in love with Grushinskaya, does as well as possible with a role that just marks time. Michael Parillo has the type of part that never works — the harried manager of a recalcitrant star — and his energy masks a lack of witty dialogue that the role demands.
Director Schneider doesn’t infuse the tie-everything-together climax with excitement. Most successful are the “Happy Charleston” number, vigorously performed by the ensemble, and the buoyantly executed “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” featuring Townsend, Graae, Dupre and Irizarry. Schneider’s concept causes the Colony stage to appear larger and more lavish than it is, and if he can’t disguise all the flaws in the basic material, he slams past them with lively showmanship.