They don’t build musicals like Grand Hotel anymore. They don’t build lodging like Berlin’s Grand Hotel anymore either. Even in 1928, when the musical is set, the “guests” are aware that an era of opulence is fading. Characters check in for their last fabulous fling, one more waltz under the crystal chandelier, a final sip of Champagne at the brass-railed bar. Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel captured some of that same bittersweet nod of nostalgia, that feeling of something stylish and wonderful sliding gracefully into oblivion as something ugly and menacing marches in to replace it.
That sense of das Lebewohl accompanies every one of the marvelous old musicals that Irving’s Lyric Stage revives — always with the original orchestrations, a full pit orchestra (38 musicians for this latest) and as lavish a staging as possible on a not-so-lavish budget. It’s as if Lyric is giving going away parties for big, complicated shows like Grand Hotel, Lady in the Dark, The Golden Apple and others they’ve produced recently. We watch, applaud and weep a little when they are packed up and returned to the vaults whence Lyric’s founder and producer Steven Jones found them.
Grand shows like Grand Hotel are American musical museum pieces. They’re too expensive to put on now, too hard to cast and, frankly, a little dusty around the edges compared with the fresh, quirky vibes of hip-hop Hamilton (Broadway’s current smash) or this year’s Tony winner, Fun Home. Grand Hotel hasn’t had a production in North Texas in 22 years (last done by Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana). And though it ran for over 1,000 performances in its Broadway debut in 1989, winning five Tony Awards, including two for Texan director-choreographer Tommy Tune, it has never had a full revival there. A “25th anniversary reunion concert” last May brought together some of the original cast members for a one-night-only event in a Manhattan nightclub. A stripped-down version with minimal set and costumes and only seven musicians ran five weeks last summer at London’s Southwark Playhouse.
For all these reasons, and because Lyric’s production is superbly cast with local musical theater pros giving spectacularly good performances, Grand Hotel is an important moment in the fall theater season. Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, later turned into a play and a 1932 movie starring Greta Garbo (uttering her famous line “I vant to be alone”), the musical features a lush, sweeping score (music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, with additional numbers by the great Maury Yeston). And it moves. From the opening number as guest after glamorous guest whirls through the revolving doors on the richly detailed two-story hotel lobby (set rented from Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera), to the finale as they depart, Grand Hotel offers a panoramic view of the upstairs-downstairs lives of bellboys, maids, gangsters, businessmen, an aging ballerina and a bankrupt baron.
The heart of the story is scrawny Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (achingly fine Andy Baldwin), spending his savings on a suite because he’s dying and wants his first taste of the high life. The slightly larcenous baron (Christopher J. Deaton) befriends Otto. Their joyous duet at the bar, “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” is, as it was on Broadway, the highlight of an evening crowded with great singing and dancing.
In cinematic crosscuts, we see the baron romance the ballerina (a too-stiff Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Lyric’s only bit of miscasting) and flirt with a pretty typist (impressive TCU senior Taylor Quick). While a nervous bellboy (Anthony Fortino) awaits news from the birth of his first child, two jazz dancers (Mark Gerrard Powers, Ivan Jones) put on a Charleston show as a crooked tycoon (Barry Phillips) concocts a scheme to seduce the typist.
Director/choreographer Len Pfluger, using Tune’s original dances, keeps everyone on their toes, heels and other movable joints, including dozens of golden chairs that seem to appear and disappear like velvet-cushioned apparitions. Musical director Jay Dias and his orchestra let the score’s soaring ballads and dance numbers perfume the air, and during the underscore beneath dialogue they, like Chanel No. 5, never overwhelm.
“Life resides in people, not places,” Kringelein says at the end of the show. He’s right, of course. But sometimes it takes revisiting a fictional place like Grand Hotel to be reminded.
Grand Hotel continues through November 8 at Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Tickets $23-$53 at 972-252-2787 or lyricstage.org.