LONDON — Amid the big three musicals (“The Woman in White,” “The Producers” and the imminent “Mary Poppins”) that have dominated London legit talk all season, spare a thought for a small-scale production making some noise of its own: the Donmar Warehouse revival of “Grand Hotel — The Musical.”
Show started previews Nov. 19 and bowed Nov. 29 at the 251-seater, no stranger to hosting (and sometimes reinventing) Broadway tuners. Under previous artistic director Sam Mendes, the Donmar produced four Sondheim shows, including an Olivier Award-winning staging of “Merrily We Roll Along,” directed by Michael Grandage, who late in 2002 followed Mendes as Donmar a.d.
Grandage is at the helm of this latest “Grand Hotel,” with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio heading the cast as abject ballerina Grushinskaya. While the 1989 Broadway preem of “Grand Hotel” had a company of 32, the Donmar is getting by with 17 — the second most populous staging at the venue after the 19-strong ensemble of its 1998 “Into the Woods” revival.
Production is costing £200,000 (around $375,000), literally a fraction of director-choreographer Tommy Tune’s New York premiere 15 years ago. That one ended up just shy of $6 million.
Initial reviews have been generally warm, with a notable dissenting voice in the Times, which awarded the show two stars out of five. (The Financial Times gave the production the full five stars.)
The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer spoke for several crix in arguing that the staging outshone the material: “Grandage’s production, with its superbly drilled ensemble, sweeps fluently and inventively by, but even this fine director can’t persuade us that ‘Grand Hotel’ belongs among the musical greats.”
Donmar exec director Nick Frankfort, says the tuner was “one of the first shows Michael asked me to try to get the rights for when he took over.” Grandage was no doubt aware that the Sondheim well could soon run dry (there aren’t that many remaining Sondheim musicals suitable to the space), though the Donmar did win kudos in 2003 for its “Pacific Overtures,” co-produced with Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
The Weimar-era Berlin setting of “Grand Hotel” tallies with the European focus of Grandage’s regime so far: a repertoire that has seen plays by Camus (“Caligula”) and Pirandello (“Henry IV”), with Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, due next July.
Grandage hadn’t even embarked on his career as a director when Tune’s Broadway production came to London’s cavernous Dominion theater in July 1992.
And though he recalls Tune’s version having “an American sort of sentimentality placed on top of it,” Grandage says the show nonetheless “had enough of an effect for me to go away again and see what was there. We wanted to go back to (Vicki Baum’s source novel) and find out more about the underbelly of the piece.”
Skedded through Feb. 12, the production has been SRO so far and is pretty much sold out through Christmas. “In our heads, we always hope a musical will do 90%,” says Frankfort, though he cautions, “We still have January and February to get through.”