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Life is Great at the Grand Hotel

Vanessa Sears as Frieda Flamm with the cast. Photo by David Cooper.

Grand Hotel is this year’s must-see musical.Directed by Eda Holmes, the play is based on Viki Baum’s novel, Menschen im Hotel, written in 1929. Viki Baum was an Austrian writer, musician and journalist and many of her novels have been adapted as movies and stage plays. Grand Hotel is one of these adaptations with a book by Luther Davis and music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Davis, Wright, and Forrest adapted Baum’s story two times. Once in 1958 and the other in 1989 under the titles At the Grand, and Grand Hotel respectively.

Many writers have used hotels as settings for their novels, plays and screenplays as hotels are out-of-the-ordinary places where the guests really don’t know each other, yet they spend nights under the same roof. A hotel is the best means of gathering a wide variety of people with different characteristics and backgrounds. Each one has a story to tell and can be placed in the lobby, the restaurant or the bar of the hotel to face strangers coming from faraway worlds to cross paths at any particular moment.

The play is performed at the Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival – an 860-seat theatre, designed by architect Rohn Thom in 1973. Unlike the Royal George Theatre and the Historic Courthouse Theatre the new Festival Theatre is a modern building with a certain prestige that lingers around in the seats.

Grand Hotel is set in a luxurious hotel in the post-World-War I prosperous Berlin in the “Golden Twenties” when Germany was economically, scientifically and culturally flourishing.

The sense of luxury is well conveyed through the high bars and chandeliers on the set without overcrowding the stage with excessive paraphernalia; thus, the decoration doesn’t seem too extravagant.

A fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper intending to spend his saving at The Grand Hotel to the last day of his life, a penniless young Baron, the general manager of a failing company, a young attractive typewriter seeking fame through becoming an actress in Hollywood, an aging ballet dancer and her devoted assistant, an emotionally wounded war doctor and a collection of gangsters, simple workers, clerks and hotel employees are brought together to flash the whole of life before the audience’s eyes. The short-lived ‘golden twenties’ in Berlin — which soon moved into the era of The Third Reich — is reminiscent of the shortness of life itself.

Under the stage you can see the orchestra modestly playing music almost constantly throughout the play. If one is seated at the balcony — as I was — it would be hard to decide whether to look at the actors and actresses dancing and singing on the stage or watching the musicians in the Orchestra Pit, performing so passionately and harmoniously as if they are observing every single movement of the people acting and dancing above on the stage. You can’t decide if the musicians lead the actors and actresses towards their next moves by giving tuneful hints and pointers for their modesty is so palpable, or they are following the dancers’ lead for their adroitness is so notable. Altogether, the music, the action and the singing are completely synchronized.

Grand Hotel is a magnificent musical that I recommend everyone to see. It runs into mid-October. Hope, love, betrayal, fear and death are all brought together in Grand Hotel to remind us to celebrate peace, freedom and life itself.

After all, not everyone around the world currently has the luxury of living in democracy and peace.

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