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The story formula for Grand Hotel, The Musical is a familiar (dare I say cliché?) one: the titular site brings together a set of characters who all have pressing problems in their personal or professional lives, with the plot unfolding as their paths intersect. Set in Berlin, in 1928, the characters’ dilemmas can feel distant; the musical’s origin, in 1989, makes some of its gender and race representation seem dated as well. Yet the ambitious Front Porch Theatricals’ production, helmed by Scott P. Calhoon (director), Douglas Levine (music director), and Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique (choreographers) is a fresh, energetic, and engaging showcase of local talent.

The opening number, “The Grand Parade,” introduces us to the primary persons of interest. There’s Baron Felix von Gaigern (Scott Pearson), a womanizing aristocrat deeply in debt to an unsavory creditor, who needs money – fast! – to save his skin. There’s Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Daina Michelle Griffith), a prima ballerina on her final tour, who is facing not only financial difficulties but also a fear that she has aged out of her profession; she’s accompanied by her assistant Raffaela (Kristin Conrad), who is secretly in love with her. There’s General Director Preysing (Daniel Krell), a by-the-book businessman who is on the verge of bankruptcy and waiting for news that his company will be saved by a merger offer from Boston. There’s Otto Klingelein (Jason Swauger), a Jew (and former bookkeeper to Preysing), who has a fatal illness and has decided to live life to the fullest in his dying weeks. And there’s Flaemmchen (Betsy Miller, who ups the wattage every time she enters the stage), a typist and aspiring film starlet who is also, distressingly, late with her period. 

The cast of Grand Hotel. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

There seem to be a million other people parading onto the small New Hazlett stage as well, including our narrator, the mysterious and moody Colonel Doctor Otternschlag (played by Patrick Mizzoni on opening night); a silent dancing couple (Grant Braden and Mikaela Kapeluck); a pair of jazz entertainers from the US, both named Jimmy (Matthew Diston and Malcolm McGraw); the front desk clerk Erik (Sam Marzella), who is worried about his wife in labor and is harrassed by his boss, the Concierge (Jeremy Spoljarick); and a bevy of bellhops, maids, and other hangers-on. A count of names in the program indicates that there are, in fact, twenty-eight performers in the ensemble, but between the swirl of choreography and a panoply of costume changes the production gives the impression that the cast is many times that size.

Twenty-eight is still a big ensemble for a small company like Front Porch, and it’s a testament to the production team to have pulled together so much local talent. The production is marked by strong vocal work by both principles and chorus; while it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself humming any of the songs as you head out the door (it’s not really that type of score), there are some standout numbers, including Swauger’s rendition of “Table With a View,” Miller’s “Girl in the Mirror,” Pearson’s “Love Can’t Happen,” and Griffith’s “Bonjour Amour.” Herman and Verastique have also created a lot of energetic choreography, and the ensemble is up to the challenge. Four numbers in particular deserve mention – “Maybe My Baby Loves Me,” featuring Diston, McGraw, and Miller; “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” featuring Pearson and Swauger along with a showstopping number, “The Grand Charleston H-A-P-P-Y,” that features nearly the entire cast; and a beautiful pas-de-deux between Braden and Kapeluck after the song “Roses at the Station.”

Jonmichael Bohach’s scenic design has a spare simplicity that gives ample space for song and dance and supports the smooth flow of the action. He indicates the grandeur of the lobby’s hotel primarily through faux-marble on the floor and on columns bordering the stage; a staircase takes up much of center stage, and the orchestra is set up on a platform above the playing space as if it’s the hotel’s resident big band. The main set pieces are a big round fringed sofa (which does double duty as a bed in a bedroom scene) and a stand with an old-fashioned rotary phone that serves as the hotel reception desk; most of the scenes are efficiently established with the use of straight-backed chairs that flow in and out as part of the choreography, sometimes to quasi-magical effect (a particularly lovely example is when the scene quickly establishes a ladies’ washroom with a horizontal pole between two stools and then subsequently transitions to a mens’ washroom with a subtle change of personnel and orientation). Valerie Webster’s costumes and Nicole Pagano’s wigs not only ground the action in its time and place, but also serve to underscore the impression that this is a world populated by a city full of people – many of the ensemble members seem to have a new look for each number. 

L to R: Betsy Miller and Jason Swauger. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Formulaic as the story may be, the performers do an excellent job of adding dimension to characters who could easily devolve into stereotype. The principles all take care to offer glimpses of their characters’ vulnerabilities and contradictions; particularly fine in this regard are Krell as the uptight Prussian who gets his first taste of vice and is on a downward slide from there, Swauger as the disheveled but philosophical invalid, and Miller, whose magnificent rendition of “Girl in the Mirror” ranges poignantly through a full spectrum of emotions, from high to low and back again. Miller also occupies the storyline that feels most resonant and relevant to a contemporary audience: not only are there hints that Flaemmchen might be looking to terminate her pregnancy (an option that seems to be abruptly, and weirdly, foreclosed with the play’s resolution), but she is also a victim of #metoo predation, and Miller takes us deep into the ick and awfulness of that abuse.

Other thematic threads in the play feel more stretched: there’s a recurrent suggestion of class resentment among the scullery workers and bellhops (“Some Have, Some Have Not”), and a vague gesturing at anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. But these are all things we are told rather than shown in the world of the play – none of them are really central to its primary conflicts. 

Rather, the overarching driver of conflict in this musical (and maybe its most potent reminder that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose) is the need of its two primary White male characters to maintain their status, wealth, and privilege – and their readiness to engage in immoral and criminal behavior in fulfillment of that need. The fact that, in the end, neither actually succeeds is either the story’s most fantastical element – or its most subversive and hopeful one.