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Monday, April 6, 2020

PALM CANYON THEATRE TAKES ITS AUDIENCE TO 1928 BERLIN IN THE MUSICAL “GRAND HOTEL”

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By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The Palm Canyon Theatre of Palm Springs known for its glittering production values gorgeous costumes, sparkling set designs, along with their signature high energy dance numbers, plus a bucket full of Desert Star Award trophies from the Desert Theatre League (DTL) for its many award-winning productions, uncharacteristically hit a speed bump with its current production “Grand Hotel”, the musical.

The musical version written some 30 years ago by librettist Luther Davis, with music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest,  is based on German novelist Vicki Baum’s 1929 tale of the hedonistic and excessive lifestyle of pre-WWII Berlin before Hitler and the Nazi’s came to power.

There are echoes of Christopher Isherwood’s novella ”The Berlin Stories” and “Berlin Diary”, written in 1945 that would become the basis for the Tony Award-winning musical “Cabaret”, starring the amazing Joel Gray, and later the Academy Award-winning film of the same name starring Liza Minelli and Michael York.

With such a pedigree, one wonders why or how this ambitious production went off the rails.  Could it possibly be that the material failed to be relevant for its loyal patrons and this audience of one, on April 6th at the Palm Canyon Theatre?

Photo courtesy of Paul Hayashi Photography.

PCT has a winning track record when it comes to staging musicals. It’s one of their strengths. Perhaps, it’s the less than stellar music, lyrics, and libretto that appears, at times, to be the culprit by competing with the actors and singers, throwing off the production’s timing and pacing. Whatever it is, it can be a crippling experience for the cast and a rough night for the audience.

Musicals, however, do require strong singers who can act and actors who can sing. One without the other is a recipe for disaster.  If any of the previous questions fail to provide any answers as to why this show appears to be operating on 4 cylinders instead of eight, then the raison d’etre for not engaging its audience lies elsewhere. “Grand Hotel” is a bit dated, and as such, is not staged very often.  Perhaps, therein, lies the nub of one problem, if not, then the issue of a lack of “audience engagement” rests squarely in the lap of director Richard Marlow, in either case.

Show biz isn’t considered a risky, no-nonsense, business venture for nothing.  After all, no one can hit every pitch thrown and knock it out of the ballpark.  Many shows when faced with less than stellar writing, music, and lyrics make it difficult for the cast to be at their best.  It takes experienced performers to rise above mediocrity when they’re trapped by the show’s creators and have nowhere to go or no one to help steady the ship.

Also, budgetary restraints play a huge part in a production’s success.  The favorite old joke about musicians that comedians used for years still applies today: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice. Practice. Practice.”  In the theatre its Rehearsals, Rehearsals, Rehearsals. Even when everyone is trying to do their best the show still falls short of audience expectations. It’s just the nature of the beast.

On the plus side, PCT can still claim the crown of designing fabulous sets.  Resident scenic and lighting designer J.W. Layne renders a glittering, sparkling, functioning, performance space albeit, a smaller version of the former glory days of Berlin’s Grand Hotel.

DTL multi-award-winning Costume designer Derik Shopinski, delivers a dazzling array of costumes that mirror the period, and match the wig designs of Mado Nunez, and who somehow manages to perform on-stage as well as Rohna, the Hotel manager, and as the Gigolo in the lovely three minute balletic pas de deux interlude number with dancer Ellissa Landi.

The production features twenty-two performers and a four-piece orchestra led by music director Steven Smith on piano, with Larry Holloway on Base, Cindy Brogan, violinist, and Tom Keenlyside on Reed.  There isn’t enough space to include all.  However, there are always standouts and these include Se Layne as the aging Russian Ballerina Diva Elizaveta Grushinskaya and production choreographer; Adina Lawson as Raffaela; personal assistant to Grushinskaya; Terry Huber as Otto Kringeline; Allegra Angelo as Flaemmchen; and Ben Reece as the Baron.

The musical creative team of Robert Wright and George Forrest wrote twenty-two mostly unmemorable songs with the exceptions of “Bonjour Amour” beautifully sung by Se Layne; “Twenty-two years/Villa on a Hill, by Adina Lawson; “Girl in the Mirror” sung by Allegra Angelo; “How Can I Tell Her”, poignantly sung by Adina Lawson, and “Roses at the Station” tenderly rendered by tenor Ben Reece.

Let’s hope this production that struck that speed bump I referenced earlier is just a one-time glitch. In future it would be wise to make sure that casting candidates really can sing (and not just in the shower) as well as act.
“Grand Hotel”, the musical, performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre through April 14, 2019.

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