Kokandy makes sure 'Grand Hotel' musical lives up to its name

 
 
Updated 4/25/2018 12:18 PM
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  • Raffaela (Liz Norton,) left, comforts ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Michelle Jasso) in the musical "Grand Hotel," directed by John D. Glover for Kokandy Productions.

    Raffaela (Liz Norton,) left, comforts ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Michelle Jasso) in the musical "Grand Hotel," directed by John D. Glover for Kokandy Productions. Courtesy of Evan Hanover

  • While Europe's upper-crust indulge, the "have nots" grow increasingly discontent in "Grand Hotel." Kokandy Productions' revival runs through May 27 at Theater Wit.

    While Europe's upper-crust indulge, the "have nots" grow increasingly discontent in "Grand Hotel." Kokandy Productions' revival runs through May 27 at Theater Wit. Courtesy of Evan Hanover

"Grand Hotel" -- ★ ★ ★

One of the joys of Chicago storefront theater is experiencing the magic that resourceful artists create on modest budgets in smallish spaces.

Case in point: Kokandy Productions' first-rate revival of "Grand Hotel," a middling 1989 musical by writer Luther Davis and composer/lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest with additional songs by Maury Yeston.

John D. Glover's adroit staging, Aaron Benham's music direction and clever choreography from Libertyville's Brenda Didier -- together with a splendid ensemble -- make for an impressive production on any scale. They fashion something grand of a show that is the theatrical equivalent of a soap opera. And they succeed despite the musical's loose plotting, thinly drawn characters and a score that -- with a few exceptions -- is not especially memorable.

Fading bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Jonathan Schwart) spends his final days enjoying the high life in Kokandy Productions' revival of "Grand Hotel."
Fading bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Jonathan Schwart) spends his final days enjoying the high life in Kokandy Productions' revival of "Grand Hotel." - Courtesy of Evan Hanover

Based on Vicki Baum's 1929 novel and the 1932 film, "Grand Hotel" unfolds as a series of intersecting vignettes in 1928 Berlin. Ambition and adventure, romance and ruin, desire and desperation play out over the course of nearly two intermissionless hours.

The international, mostly upper-crust hotel guests and the increasingly discontent employees who attend them enter and exit the titular landmark via a revolving door, which serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor for lives in transition.

"People come, people go ... but time is running out," observes the morphine-addicted Colonel Doctor, a permanent Grand Hotel resident played with calculated indifference by Jerry Miller (Scrooge in Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's 2017 "A Christmas Carol"). Offering fatalistic asides hinting at the demise of the Weimar Republic's golden era and the rise of Germany's totalitarian state, the doctor serves as "Grand Hotel's" de facto narrator of the melodramas unfolding there.

Michelle Jasso plays a fading ballerina who falls in love with Erik Dohner's fading aristocrat in Kokandy Productions' revival of the musical "Grand Hotel," based on the 1932 film.
Michelle Jasso plays a fading ballerina who falls in love with Erik Dohner's fading aristocrat in Kokandy Productions' revival of the musical "Grand Hotel," based on the 1932 film. - Courtesy of Evan Hanover

The show opens with guests parading into the hotel while the employees make clear their frustration in the uneasy, ill-omened "Some Have, Some Have Not."

Among the hotel guests is the aging, financially strapped prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Michelle Jasso, who combines grace and gusto). Accompanying her is longtime confidant Raffaela (an authentic Liz Norton, channeling Marlene Dietrich), whose devotion exceeds friendship.

Other guests are in similarly dire straits. Baron Felix von Gaigern (Erik Dohner, a commanding baritone) is an aristocrat turned thief under pressure from a thuggish chauffeur (Pavi Proczko) to pay off his mounting debts. Business executive Hermann Preysing (a careful, complex performance by Jeremy Trager) faces financial ruin without a capital infusion from a U.S. merger.

Aspiring actress Flaemmchen (Leryn Turlington) hoofs it with American expats and tap dancers extraordinaire Jimmy (Travis Austin Wright), left, and Jimmy (Darren Patin) in Kokandy Productions' "Grand Hotel."
Aspiring actress Flaemmchen (Leryn Turlington) hoofs it with American expats and tap dancers extraordinaire Jimmy (Travis Austin Wright), left, and Jimmy (Darren Patin) in Kokandy Productions' "Grand Hotel." - Courtesy of Evan Hanover

The guest with the most cash, terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (a warm, wonderful Jonathan Schwart), intends to spend his final days in luxury. Meanwhile typist and aspiring starlet Flaemmchen (a winsome Leryn Turlington) dreams of spending her days in Hollywood.

John Nasca's handsome, late 1920s costumes and Jeffrey D. Kmiec's elegant, compactly realized set lend a visual splendor to Kokandy's black box production.

The show's sumptuous vocals come courtesy of a robust ensemble of 23 (you read that right) singer/actors who are accompanied onstage by pianist Benham, violinist Elena Spiegel and drummer Tony Scandora.

Equally entertaining is Didier's Charleston-infused choreography, showcased in the ebullient "Maybe My Baby Loves Me." The number features Turlington and the terrific duo of Darren Patin and Travis Austin Wright.

Struggling businessman Herman Preysing (Jeremy Trager) wrestles with his conscience before a shareholders meeting at the "Grand Hotel." Kokandy Productions' revival of the 1989 musical is directed by John D. Glover.
Struggling businessman Herman Preysing (Jeremy Trager) wrestles with his conscience before a shareholders meeting at the "Grand Hotel." Kokandy Productions' revival of the 1989 musical is directed by John D. Glover. - Courtesy of Evan Hanover

But it's not just period choreography that sets "Grand Hotel" apart. Didier makes savvy use of space, which is reflected in the charmer "Who Couldn't Dance With You?" Chorus members dance alone, but with arms positioned as if they're dancing a partner. As a result, the number feels bigger than it is. More importantly, Didier's choreography suggests the characters' isolation: Even in a crowd, they are essentially alone.

The challenge of steering "Grand Hotel" clear of melodrama falls to Glover, who crafts authentic moments that add substance to the show. Trager's conflicted Preysing wrestles with his conscience over whether to "take the crooked path." Norton's anguished Raffaella pines for a woman she will never have. And Dohner's tragic baron imagines a future he will never experience.

They reflect an authenticity that earns not just our sympathy, but our respect. And for all its grandeur, that's what resonates after the curtain falls on "Grand Hotel."

• • •

Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, (773) 975-8150 or kokandyproductions.com

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 27. Also 3 p.m. May 19 and 26

Running time: About 1 hour 50 minutes, with no intermission

Tickets: $35, $40

Parking: Limited street parking, $12 valet

Rating: Contains mature subject matter, some sexual content, offstage violence

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