Theatre Review: ‘Grand Hotel’ at The Shaw Festival

James Daly and Michael Therriault and the cast of “Grand Hotel” at The Shaw Festival. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s Berlin in 1928, where the Grand Hotel embodies all that is luxury, glamour, style, and class. Guests come and go, offering only a glimpse into their complex and often chaotic lives. While they’re just glimpses, they illustrate the fact that we’re all complicated beings, colliding with each other in unforeseen and unimagined ways. This is the central theme of Luther Davis’ “Grand Hotel”, currently playing at Niagara-on-the Lake’s Shaw Festival, and one that is perfectly embodied by the show’s setting. Because at a hotel, you see only snippets of the lives of the individuals that are staying there.

. . .a breath of fresh air. . .

The characters and stories featured in “Grand Hotel” are as interesting as they are diverse, including a terminally-ill Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his remaining days living in the lap of luxury (Otto Kringelein, played by Michael Therriault); an over-the-hill prima ballerina (Elizaveta Grushinskaya, played by Deborah Hay) who falls for a baron half her age (Baron von Gaigern, played by James Daly); a good-hearted business executive who all-to-easily becomes corrupt (Hermann Preysing, played by Jay Turvey);  a lowly typist who has her eyes set on Hollywood (Frieda Flamm, played by Vanessa Sears); and a cynical doctor who’s been ravaged by the horrors of WWI (Doctor Otternschlag, played by Steven Sutcliffe), to name a few. While these characters are the central players in their respective storylines, they all intersect in the show’s second act when love, money, and lust lead them all to make hugely consequential choices.

If you’ve seen the slightly-more-modern “Cabaret”, you’re familiar with “Grand Hotel’s” story structure, in which the audience is introduced to these various characters and plot lines through the eyes of a narrator; in this case Dr. Otternschlag, one of the hotel’s more long-term guests who can’t find a good enough reason to check out. The competing storylines and big dance numbers also make this show largely reminiscent of “Cabaret”, though it’s decidedly less raunchy and sexual (though not ENTIRELY unsexual). “Grand Hotel” combines the glitz and glam of Broadway (big vocal/dance numbers, chorus lines, and bright lights) with heavy thematic material including poverty, social class, aging, corruption, and sexual deviancy at the hands of powerful men.

The Shaw Festival’s production of “Grand Hotel” is a breath of fresh air, both for it’s top-caliber artistry and because it’s a show that isn’t done incredibly often. The show’s set design is stunning, featuring a luxurious hotel lobby adorned with tall gleaming pillars and a grand staircase. The costumes and makeup are right out of the roaring 20’s. The orchestra was superb, seamlessly transitioning from ballads to waltzes to big band jazz. Most notably, the cast was superb. Though they were all incredible, honorable mentions go to Michael Therriault, who played to eccentric and deeply sad Otto Kringelein; Elizaveta Grushinskaya, the aging prima ballerina; and Baron von Gaigern, the show’s protagonist, played by James Daly.

“Time is running out” is the hallmark line from Grand Hotel. In the show, the line is referencing the lives of its many characters: the bookkeeper with a terminal illness, the aging ballerina whose career is sunsetting, the baron who’s indebted to shady gangsters, etc. Fortunately, the line doesn’t apply to this production of “Grand Hotel,” which runs until October 14th at Shaw’s Festival Theatre. It is one you won’t want to miss.

Running time is 2 hours 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Advisory: Show contains some adult material.

“Grand Hotel” runs until October 14, 2018 and is presented as part of The Shaw Festival at Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.