The '80s techno-musical is a toy built by its director. Sometimes it's a dull, noisy toy, like "Starlight Express"; sometimes it's an overdesigned one, like "The Phantom of the Opera." And then sometimes it's enchanting, like Tommy Tune's production of "Grand Hotel," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. "Grand Hotel" is a dazzling piece of direction, full of surprise, beauty and daring. But it's a mechanism. There's something askew when a musical isn't about its story or its music, but about its exquisitely moving parts.
"Grand Hotel" began as a corny, melodramatic novel by Vicki Baum. Life was not a cabaret but a hotel, with a stock guest list: the ballerina tired of life; the dying man who wants to live his last days to the fullest; the pretty, ambitious typist; the nasty businessman; the nobleman-thief. The book became a play, a movie (with Greta Garbo and John Barrymore) and, in 1958, a musical with a book by Luther Davis and songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest (who also wrote, among other things, "Kismet" and "Song of Norway"). Thirty-one years later, Tommy Tune, script doctor Peter Stone, composer-lyricist Maury Yeston, designer Tony Walton and musical supervisor Wally Harper Cuisinartedit into its present form. It's still corny and melodramatic.
World War II and its horrors fell between the novel and its musical incarnation. Nothing set in Berlin in 1928 can be looked at now except through the lens of history. So decadence has been layered onto Baum's beautiful-doomed-people story. The musical features a narrator (Anthony Franciosa), who's not only lame and blind but a junkie, a dancing couple whose female member is also blind, preying homosexuals (a slimy cliche that should be retired), whores, and a chorus that's occasionally lighted to make its members look like white-faced corpses.
All this is very picturesque, of course, and Tune does stunning things with it. Tony Walton's marvelous set with its glass pillars and lines of infinitely rearrangeable chairs perfectly contains and highlights Tune's whirling, kaleidoscopic staging. "Grand Hotel" doesn't pass in front of you, it unfolds and refolds, like a series of magnificent painted fans. But it remains a production that doesn't belong to its authors and performers but to its director, a musical that isn't about its score but about its set.
The show-stopper of both the New York production and this one is the exuberant Charleston performed by the dying Otto Kringelein (Mark Baker here). It's the most winning thing in the show because it doesn't fit neatly into the geometrical perfection of the staging but bursts with its own messy life. Goofy and happy, Kringelein's dance delivers some of the old-fashioned pleasures of musicals -- their high spirits and the skills of their performers -- and lets fresh air into the world-weary proceedings.
The other performers do their best and some do very well, but they're basically just cogs in Tune's machine. As the larcenous Baron, Brent Barrett has a lovely voice, but he comes across as merely handsome and correct until he cuts loose with a scissor-legged Charleston. Playing Flaemmchen the typist, DeLee Lively-Mekka (a wonderful name for a dancer) sports the kind of gorgeous legs that used to be called "gams," and with her short skirts and flashing garters, she's a delightful tease. Victoria Regan's Countess, in spite of being weighed down with symbolism (she's not only blind, she also has to play Love in a "Dance of Love and Death") is a beautiful, sinuous dancer -- and is shown off marvelously, as all the women are, by Santo Loquasto's gowns.
As the fading ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, Liliane Montevecchi both plays a star and is one. With her firm thighs, graceful neck and throaty singing voice, she's an innately romantic figure. Surrendering to the Baron in white tights and tutu, she's as vulnerable and delicate as a girl. Her worn, still-beautiful face is like an icon of real life among all the fairy-tale nonsense. She also has a dry, commonsensical wit: When Montevecchi cocks a wry eye at Grushinskaya's folly, she deflates some of the show's pretensions as well.
There are a couple of embarrassments that fall through Tune's conceits with a crash. The lurching proletarians who cart silverware through the kitchen are probably a bow to political correctness -- a bit of class consciousness -- but you have to wonder where their discontent will lead them when the Nazis come to power. And when, without a trace of irony, a young father sings to his newborn son "Welcome to life!," all you can think is that in 10 years the kid will be ready for the Hitler Youth. "Grand Hotel" can slather on decadence like makeup, but it's too flimsy to support the weight of real politics.
Probably no one connected with the musical should even have tried for political relevance. "Grand Hotel" isn't the bitter-souled "Cabaret," possibly the most adult musical ever written. It's light -- all sound and color and whirling motion, an entertainment for the sophisticated child in us. How you respond to it depends on what you demand from the theater, and whether you still enjoy toys.
Grand Hotel, book by Luther Davis; songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest; additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune. Musical supervision and additional music, Wally Harper; sets, Tony Walton; lighting, Jules Fisher; sound, Otts Munderloh; costumes, Santo Loquasto. With Anthony Franciosa, Victoria Regan, Arte Phillips, Dirk Lumbard, David Dollase, Erick Devine, David Rogers, Bernie Passeltiner, K.C. Wilson, DeLee Lively-Mekka, Mark Baker, Brent Barrett, Debbie de Coudreaux and Liliane Montevecchi. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Jan. 6.