The 1932 film version of Grand Hotel is best remembered for Greta Garbo's languid "I vant to be alone." A better signature line was never invented for an actress--particularly since Garbo was a famous recluse. No one could ever read that line again without invoking her presence as the elusive prima ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. But fortunately for us, the stage musical written in 1989 bears only a slight resemblance to the film, so Garbo's ghost can rest in peace. Grand Hotel, the musical, has a life of its own, and despite a rather too noisy band, the splashy production at Boulder Dinner Theater is refreshingly different.
Like so much contemporary musical theater, Grand Hotel tells a rather dark tale, based, like the film, on the 1928 novel about decadence in pre-Hitler Germany. A bitter, drug-addicted doctor comments on the complicated story as the characters arrive at the posh hotel of the title.
Otto Kringelein, an aging bookkeeper suffering from a terminal illness, arrives having sold all his property and gathered his savings together to have one last fling at living. The nasty concierge tries to throw him out because he's Jewish, but the dashing Baron (played with polished style by Bob Frier) intercedes for the old man, and the concierge reluctantly gives Kringelein a room. A.K. Klimpke is an actor who routinely disappears into his roles, and here again he milks the frail-old-man routine for all it's worth, so that when he does a peculiarly athletic dance with the Baron later in the show, it comes as a delightful shock.
The Baron's generosity is all the more appealing since he appears to be a ne'er-do-well. In fact, he is a thief with the proverbial heart of gold--a nobleman who is actually noble. And he proves it throughout the show. The Baron is terribly in debt to a gangster, and if he doesn't pay up soon, the Chauffeur will off him. So he tries to steal a diamond necklace from the still-beautiful Grushinskaya on this, her farewell tour as a ballerina. But instead of stealing from her, he falls in love with her, telling her he is tired of empty faces and loves the lines of experience in hers--a middle-aged woman's fantasy if ever there was one.
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The Baron next tries to steal from Kringelein, but can't bring himself to do it. Later in the show, the Baron, who has flirted outrageously with the lovely dumpling Flaemmchen, a typist with Hollywood aspirations, saves her from the lecherous advances of an uptight businessman. Nothing in the show is more gratifying than the rescue of Flaemmchen. Robert Gadpaille is wonderfully disgusting as the piggish businessman, and Debra Bradley is adorable as the sleazy-yet-sensitive Flaemmchen. A talented dancer and singer, she is gifted with a marvelously expressive face and a wry charm that combine to make us care for her character.
Deborah Persoff gives a stunning performance as Elizaveta, carrying herself like an arrogant aristocrat of the dance world and in private revealing the vulnerable, sensitive artist who realizes her powers are fading. In the memorable song "Fire and Ice" and especially in "Bonjour Amour," when she realizes she is getting a second chance at love, Persoff lets layers of real feeling surface one by one. Her Russian accent never fails her--and the touching devotion of her Italian companion Raffaela, played with confidant melancholy by Jan Waterman, lends another dimension to Elizaveta's decline (though Waterman's accent needs work).
Other minor narratives weave through the halls of the Grand Hotel, reminding us that everyone has a story--from the bellhops and barmaids to the rich patrons. In fact, what makes this show so pleasant despite its themes of exploitation, suffering and repulsive self-indulgence is the sense it imparts of lives lived simultaneously--the notion that no one person is quite at the center of this universe.
Grand Hotel, through April 28 at the Boulder Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 449-6000.