With its gold leaf, red velour and Strauss crystal chandeliers, the opulent new Drury Lane Theatre at the Water Tower Place was built to resemble the lobby of an old-line grand hotel. So to revive the musical of that name, artistic director Michael Weber was merely obliged to continue the aesthetic of the theater right onto the stage.
Perhaps that's why this new theater chose to revive "Grand Hotel" from 1986, a deeply flawed and self-consciously iconic Broadway piece that only thrived in its day because of the glorious choreographic sweeps provided by its original director, Tommy Tune. Without those sweeps and they are AWOL here, in part because the relatively small stage is filled with so much darn scenery the show is a bit of a slog. The score has few pleasures. And none of the characters who populate the lobby of this Berlin hostelry, circa 1928, are exactly fresh confections.
A washed-up ballerina. An old accountant with a terminal illness. A nasty German businessman. A sexy typist with an eye on her future. One will recall the type. One recalled them perfectly well in 1986, but stuff another 20 years or so into the patronizing mix and this thing really is starting to creak.
Mercifully, no one told the cast.
Top-flight Chicago actors and there are a slew of them in Weber's monster-size show don't know how to play clichés, even when presented with them on the page. And if there's one indisputable pleasure here, it's watching the grand likes of Barbara Robertson, James Harms, Jeff Kuhl and David Girolmo grab their silly parts by the neck and wrestle with them until they spit out the truth.
Kuhl, in particular, is a sight to behold here. He plays an old accountant the kind of low-status, sentimental Jewish figure that flirts dangerously with stereotype. But Kuhl merely leans straight into the minefields of the part, forging a deeply empathetic, fully realized and cheerfully eccentric figure whose musicality seems to flow directly from his guts. Granted, Kuhl has done this role before. But it's still a masterful piece of acting.
Robertson who has to cavort around mournfully in a kind of warped tutu is no slouch either. The fading ballerina (who needs a younger man) comes with the kind of detritus that would make lesser actors look mainly ridiculous. Robertson snaps at it and kills it like she's nailing Lady Macbeth (which she just did elsewhere). She gets your attention.
This new Michigan Avenue theater is having an uneven first season. But one of its palpable early achievements is showcasing actors such as Dina DiConstanzo (who plays Fleaemmchen, the scheming ingénue). DiConstanzo has done more tapping in Oak Brook than a west suburban woodpecker, and she deserved her big shot downtown. Quirky, droll, empathetic and nimble on her feet, she makes every last hackneyed line count.
Weber deserves a great deal of credit for his casting choices and for nurturing such performances. And while there doesn't seem to be any grand new staging ideas in play here, this high-energy, never-dull show never stops moving for a second. In all probability, the thing would have worked better with a little less stuff going on around the edges. For one thing, Tammy Mader's choreography needed more rehearsal time and space (the famous "Two Jimmys" tap sequence, usually a showstopper, doesn't pop here like it should).
Weber, laudably, wants to be in sync with the overarching metaphor of Luther Davis' book that of the revolving door spitting life in and out, 24 hours a day. But on a stage this size, a sparser metaphor might have better served that goal.
This "Grand Hotel" won't convert any of the show's detractors (Robert Wright and George Forrest's score seemed more limited than ever to me, title number aside). But fans of the material will find this a very solid rendition with a clutch of terrific performances upon which one can hang the hat of the evening.
And concierges from those real-life grand hotels around the corner need have no fears. Their guests will be getting a glamorous downtown night out, without being ripped off or feeling like they wandered too far from their lobby.