Plagued by divisions between working folks and the well-to-do, Germany, like much of the industrialized world in 1928, teeters on the brink of socioeconomic collapse. Seemingly oblivious to this pervasive gloom -- or perhaps too aware of it -- a steady parade of movers, shakers and edgy dream-chasers keeps the revolving door of Berlin's ritziest rooming house spinning like a gaudy top. Bent on satisfying desires as extreme as premature death and near-eternal life, the pleasure-seekers in Grand Hotel search for certainty and order in an unpredictable and chaotic world.
The Tony Award-winning musical (based on Vicki Baum's novel of the same name, with book by Luther Davis, lyrics and music by Robert Wright and George Forrest, and additional material by Maury Yeston) is the sort of material that inspires auteur-ish concepts juxtaposing every historical event with a current political trend. Not so, however, with the version being presented at the Arvada Center by the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League (PHAMALy), a local troupe dedicated to producing works that entertain as surely as they instruct. On the strength of director Steve Wilson's clean staging, the two-and-a-half-hour show proves blessedly free of arty pretension and "significant" coincidence.
Although the plot plods along here and there and a few singing voices are in need of further development, PHAMALy's effort boasts a winning combination of easy sentiment, deft irony and unforced humor, qualities that many musically minded groups typically overlook or overwork. In PHAMALy's production, brief encounters brim with ambiguity and intrigue, fleeting episodes crackle with unrequited feeling, and overlapping relationships propel the drama instead of clouding it with soapy silliness. Adding to the pleasurable mix is a jazzy five-piece band on stage, which lends warmth, lightness and humor to a tricky, sometimes angst-ridden score. And the 22 performers (all of whom are either physically or developmentally disabled) illuminate the shared dreams of society's haves and have-nots by gently articulating each character's vulnerabilities, quirks and desires.
That's especially evident during the aptly named opening number, "The Grand Parade," when we're introduced to several laid-back aristocrats, lounging tourists and harried hotel staffers, all of whom, it seems, crave more money -- and more time -- than their situations afford. As the action unfolds, we witness the troubles that drive some to the point of despair, and the wonders that prompt others to make a new start.
There's Flaemmchen, for instance, a hopeful young typist who yearns to achieve Hollywood stardom -- even if it means compromising her honor by bedding down with a shady businessman who promises to provide her a safe passage to America. Oftentimes, she's painted as a gold-digging hussy who uses any means necessary to get what she wants -- thereby reinforcing preconceived notions about all of those decadent, expressionistic Germans. But as portrayed by Katrina Weber (who teamed with PHAMALy stalwart Kathleen Traylor to render an outstanding portrait of a pair of conjoined twins in last season's magnificent Side Show), Flaemmchen embodies every person's natural wish for the respect that comes with success. She's handsomely complemented by R. Matthew Deans's turn as a cash-poor baron, another role that's often played for maximum decadent effect, in this case the swarthiness that accompanies a dissolute life. But Deans wisely rejects that approach in favor of revealing the baron's longing to be more than the title he holds. Indeed, during a stirring duet with newcomer Margaret Klein, who delivers a beautifully realized portrait of the aging ballerina Grushinskaya, Deans summons a wealth of heartfelt passion as he croons to his beloved, "Love can't happen quite so quickly." As the song swells to its conclusion, Deans and Klein come together in a simple, poignant embrace.
Among the many fine supporting players, Linda Joy Wirth delights with her dual roles as an officious concierge and, a couple of scenes later, a high-stepping flapper who, along with actress Miriam "Mimi" Rebecca Holmes, wows the crowd while performing as "The Gin Fizz," a cabaret act. Jim Hubbard strikes all the right emotional chords as Kringelein, a dying bookkeeper, and Charles "Chaz" Jacobson is a formidable presence as General Director Preysing, a failing businessman who, to his peril, predictably spurns the straight and narrow path in favor of a crooked one. Lucy Roucis brings plenty of empathy to her portrayal of Raffalea, personal assistant to Grushinskaya; her short solo, "Villa on a Hill," is one of the show's highlights. And Edward W. Blackshere carries out his duties as the hotel's omnipresent (but mostly silent) doorman with efficiency and aplomb.
Grand Hotel might not be the most entertaining musical that PHAMALy has mounted, nor is it as moving as Side Show, which for many represents the group's premier accomplishment. But it features a number of performances that remain truthful to the play's circumstances and measure up to high amateur musical standards -- all while transcending the perceived limits of every performer's disabilities. And that might be PHAMALy's grandest achievement yet.
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