Grand Hotel – The 35th Anniversary Original Cast Reunion

Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel), Luther Davis, Robert Wright, and George Forrest created the 1958 adaptation, At the Grand, set in contemporary Rome. Three decades later, the trio collaborated on a second version returning the story to its original 1928 Berlin locale. Director/Choreographer Tommy Tune brought in Maury Yeston to contribute additional music and lyrics. Grand Hotel’s 1989 Broadway production garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, winning five, including best direction and choreography for Tune whose inestimable work, the “constantly moving maelstrom” Baum suggested in her autobiography, arguably MADE the show.

MD Alex Rybeck and Tommy Tune

Walter Willison introduces this iteration by citing an unusual bonding of the musical’s original cast. Karen Akers tells me Tune considered his companies family. Unlike the revolving door of most shows (and its fictional lodging), these artists maintain warm ties. This is the third reunion performance to date, each time filing the house. Willison’s use of 54/Below is highly theatrical. Players flow through much of the club/hotel. Heads swivel. “Tonight, you’re the people in the lobby,” the director tells us.

Walter Willison (Colonel Doctor Otternschlag); Vanda Polakova and Michael Choi (The Countess and the Gigolo)

As Colonel Doctor Otternschlag, Willison narrates from a microphone stage left. Life at the hotel is “…always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens…,” sighs the jaded character. Otternschlag has a single vocal number performed under the influence of nightly morphine. “I Waltz Alone” emerges in simulated fugue state, sophisticated, lonely, resigned. It’s beautiful and affecting.

Sheila Wormer, Harper Lee Andrews, Susie McCollum, Bob Stillman, John Drinkwater, Michael Notardonato, Diane J. Findlay

The Countess and the Gigolo (Michael Choi and Vanda Polakova) stylishly dance around stage periphery evoking paintings of the era. We hear bustling voice-overs of hotel operators and guests. Onstage, new young cast members ably comprise chorus.

Timothy Jerome (Preysing), Hal Robinson (Zinnowitz)

Parallel stories include: The trials and unexpected triumph of fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein, who hopes to have one last splendid time in otherwise unaffordable luxury before dying. (Ken Jennings too robust.) Herman Preysing, general director of a textile mill (Timothy Jerome), is willing to do anything to protect the company he’s losing except lie. Zinnowitz, the lawyer (Hal Robinson), fatalistically tries to get Preysing to do just that. These two veteran actors -original cast members – work splendidly together making every interaction credible. “Ever’rybody’s Doing It” and “The Crooked Path” are first rate.

Bob Stillman (the Baron); Ken Jennings (Otto Kringelein)

Baron Felix Von Gaigern, reduced to penury, leads the life of a con man (threatened and in debt), but keeps crossing the line to be kind. He helps Kringelein, rescues Flaemmchen, and unwittingly falls in love with the dancer he expected to rob.( Bob Stillman – patrician bearing, appealing, resonant vocals – Erik in the original.)

Jennifer Bassey Davis (Elizaveta Grushinskaya); Karen Akers (Rafaella)

Prima Ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Jennifer Bassey Davis, widow of book writer Luther Davis) is diminished in skill, exhausted, dramatic and depressed. Confidante, Rafaella Ottanio (Karen Akers, original cast) suffers from unrequited love for her charge.  Bassey Davis brings grace, pride, gratitude, and wrestled astonishment to her turn. Akers, replete with proper accent, stirringly epitomizes the commitment and wretchedness of her character’s state and the discipline of withholding.

Susan Wood Duncan (Flaemmchen); David White and David Jackson (the Jimmys); Keith Crownenshield (Erik Linauer)

Flaemmchen, pregnant out of wedlock, takes a secretarial job out of necessity. She dreams of being a Hollywood star. (Susan Wood Duncan, too aggressively flirty and modern for the role.) Also worthy of call outs are song and dance men, The Jimmys, (David Jackson, original cast, and David White) whose buoyant numbers brighten dour ambiance. “H.A.P.P.Y” is marvelous. (An audience member at the bar spontaneously joins singing and jiving occurring there. The Jimmys encourage her.) And Keith Crownenshield as front desk concierge Erik Linauer – a bellboy in the original – whose solo about becoming a father is as tuneful as it is moving.

Bob Stillman (the Baron); Jennifer Bassey Davis the Ballerina)

Scene from the 1932 film Grand Hotel. Pictured are John Barrymore and Greta Garbo (Public Domain)

Deft directorial moments: When a radiogram is delivered to Preisling, finding he has no tip and in a rush, he hands the messenger his microphone. Push/pull of “Love Can’t Happen Quite So Quickly” (The Baron and Grushinskaya) is particularly sympathetic and vivid. The couple then sit with their backs to us, his arm around her while Rafaella, perched on the piano, assumes the spotlight for her song – “offering” subtle juxtaposition.

Audience and company sing Happy Birthday to Tommy Tune who was in attendance at the first show.

Happy Birthday Tommy!

Also featuring: Sheila Wormer, Diane Findlay, Charles Mandracchia, Mitchell Bloom, Barbara Rosenthal

The show continues to captivate.

Hulu, Apple TV, Prime Video and Vudu stream the original film with a stellar cast and many differences from the musical.

Production Photos Courtesy of 54/Below; Jeff Harnar; Alex Rybeck

Walter Willison and 54Below present
Grand Hotel – The 35th Anniversary Original Cast Reunion
Honoring Tommy Tune’s 85th Birthday
Songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest
Additional Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Luther Davis
Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel, Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel) and the 1932 feature film
Conceived, Adapted and Directed by Walter Willison
Musical Director Alex Rybeck
Bass- Ray Kilday
Kudos to Sound Designer Stuart J. Allyn who geographically manages clarity throughout.

54/Below

About Alix Cohen (1725 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.