Director Eric Schaeffer has overseen some trims to Luther Davis’s book so that the show comes in at a sleek hour and 45 minutes. And yet, the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional material from Maury Yeston (“Titanic” and “Nine”), all of which are meant to infuse the interlocking stories of “Grand Hotel” with near-operatic intensity, fail to seal a pulse-racing pact with Baum’s characters.
And “Grand Hotel,” which also became a 1932 American movie, is, if anything, character rich. From countless variations in plays and films on Baum’s construct, you know the literary drill: A gallery of strangers with fading dreams, burning desires and tangled pasts check in to a hotel — in this case, a lovely art deco establishment in 1928 Berlin, suavely rendered by Paul Tate dePoo III — and we are the witnesses to all the chemical reactions.
This time, at least, the confrontations reveal more fizzle than sizzle. On a day recounted by a morphine-addicted German doctor (Lawrence Redmond, with head shaved like butler Max in “Sunset Boulevard”), the guests swan in: the insecure prima ballerina (Natascia Diaz) and her lovesick amanuensis (Crystal Mosser); the cash-strapped aristocrat (Nkrumah Gatling); the film ingenue wannabe (Nicki Elledge); the shady business tycoon (Kevin McAllister); and for maximum tear-jerker potential, a Jewish accountant (Bobby Smith) who coughs ominously into his handkerchief. For Smith’s Otto Kringelein, it seems, checkout time looms all too permanently.
Diaz, like Smith a rewarding Signature mainstay, always knows how to set the thermostat on a performance. Here, her Elizaveta Grushinskaya, swathed opulently in furs by designer Robert Perdziola — who dresses everyone in chic retro black and white — is dialed to sultry, and it’s the most pleasingly dramatic bit of portraiture of the night. When she’s paired with Gatling’s Baron Felix von Gaigern (characters’ names do tend to percolate with dramatic potential) for the passionate “Love Can’t Happen,” the musical wakes up for an ecstatic moment. And Mosser, as the diva’s devoted companion, finds a resonant emotionality in songs such as “What She Needs,” her plaintive aria of thwarted desire.
The songs are of a confessional variety and tend to be delivered a bit monotonously, in assembly-line fashion, one downstage solo after another, with conductor Evan Rees and six other instrumentalists tucked away on a balcony. (Ryan Hickey’s sound design and Colin K. Bill’s lighting are polished accoutrements.) Kelly Crandall D’Amboise’s dance steps for the production’s ensemble evince some flair, especially in a Charleston number, though the emphasis on movement on every beat sometimes comes across as overthought.
Elledge, McAllister, Smith and their comrades-in-show-tunes grapple courageously with the woodenness of the script. Aside, though, from a teeny-tiny scintilla of warmth at the evening’s end, you could have wished that some enterprising customer would have called down to the front desk and asked them to turn up the heat.
Grand Hotel, book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Kelly Crandall D’Amboise; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $65-$112. Through May 19 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.