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Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm in Grand Hotel, The Musical. Sears is initially charming as a typist who wants to go to Hollywood, but keeps the darker recesses of her journey at arm’s-length.

David Cooper

  • Grand Hotel, The Musical
  • Written by: Luther Davis
  • Music and lyrics by: Robert Wright and George Forrest
  • Additional music and lyrics by: Maury Yeston
  • Directed by: Eda Holmes
  • Starring: James Daly, Deborah Hay and Michael Therriault
  • At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

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Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is a tourist town full of overpriced but underwhelming lodgings – and you can now add Grand Hotel to the list.

This 1989 Broadway musical about the guests and employees at a high-class hotel in Weimar Berlin is getting a mainstage production at the Shaw Festival that never justifies its occupation of such valuable real estate.

Grand Hotel is based on German writer Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, Menschen im Hotel (People at a Hotel), which was adapted into the Oscar-winning 1932 movie Grand Hotel – in which Greta Garbo, playing the aging ballerina Grusinskaya, uttered her immortal line: “I want to be alone.”

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Its transformation into a Broadway hit by writer Luther Davis and songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest (best known for Kismet) is a better story than the musical itself. The trio’s first stab, called At the Grand, premiered in 1958 and didn’t make it to New York. Then, three decades later, the creators reworked the show with director and choreographer Tommy Tune – who, as it sputtered out of town in Boston, brought in composer Maury Yeston and Peter Stone to perform a legendary last-minute fix that led to a three-year run on the Great White Way.

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Kiera Sangster and Matt Nethersole in Grand Hotel, The Musical.

David Cooper

But while Tune’s vibrant original production was a commercial success, push the myths aside and you’ll find that critics have never been big fans of the underlying script and lyrics – with Frank Rich of The New York Times writing at the time that you’d have to go back over a decade “to find a Broadway musical with so large a discrepancy between the mediocre quality of the material and the flair of its presentation.”

Director Eda Holmes and choreographer Parker Esse’s production at the Shaw Festival does not have much flair, but instead aims for substance – with a deconstructed art-deco design by Judith Bowden that signals we’re in for a sober night at the theatre pondering a decadent society about to be shattered by the Depression and the rise of Nazism.

Taking the material oh so seriously unfortunately leaves all the cringeworthy writing out in the open (along with the sporadically sumptuous score).

The Colonel-Doctor (Steven Sutcliffe) is our overwrought narrator for the evening – a misogynist morphine addict who wanders around the stage staring at the other characters and occasionally admonishing them with ridiculous rhetorical questions such as “You expect to find life at Grand Hotel?” or injecting forebodingly that “Time is running out!” He’s like the emcee from Cabaret, that infinitely superior musical set in Weimar Berlin, but without sex appeal or a sense of humour – and an obsessive fear of getting a parking ticket before having a chance to plug the meter at intermission.

The various plots of Grand Hotel actually centre around the character Baron von Gaigern (James Daly), an aristocrat out of cash and riding on charm as the Russian gangsters he owes circle.

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Deborah Hay as Grusinskaya. Hay brings a true soulfulness to the prima ballerina on her umpteenth farewell tour.

David Cooper

The Baron befriends a dying Jewish bookkeeper named Otto Kringelein and becomes wrapped up in a scheme to steal a necklace from the ballerina Grusinskaya – and Michael Therriault and Deborah Hay’s performances as these featured characters are the only deluxe elements in Grand Hotel. Therriault hams it up, but he’s so good at shtick that it’s impossible not to give in to the monkey-bar routine he performs at the bar during a drinking song, We’ll Have a Glass Together. Hay, meanwhile, brings a true soulfulness to the prima ballerina on her umpteenth farewell tour – and is both moving and delightful in her awakening to love in later life in the song Bonjour Amour, a Jacques Brel-styled tune that’s a highlight of the score.

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The rest of the main cast is disappointing, however. Jay Turvey starts off strong as the director-general of a company headed down the tubes, but loses his handle on the character as he starts his descent into villainy. Likewise, Vanessa Sears is initially charming as a typist who wants to go to Hollywood, but keeps the darker recesses of her journey at arm’s-length.

What really keeps the musical from ever fully coming to life is the mystifyingly blank performance from Daly as the Baron – a character perhaps jinxed by being introduced as a man with boundless charisma. He’s the central character and has to tie the plot lines together, but Daly keeps being propped up in scenes by his co-stars. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong here as the young actor is just off an incredible performance of youthful entitlement in “Master Harold”… and the Boys.

It doesn’t help anyone that Grand Hotel is full of impossible turns – a woman falling for rather than being frightened by a stalker, a gangster handing over his gun to the man he was just threatening with it. Whatever once appealed to make this musical a smash on Broadway has checked out of this production.

Grand Hotel continues to Oct. 14.