Kokandy’s haunting “Grand Hotel”

Jonathan Schwart with the cast of Kokandy Productions’ Grand Hotel. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The musical Grand Hotel is, in many ways, an anomaly. Based on a 1932 MGM movie about the inner dramas occurring in an opulent Berlin hotel in 1928, this relentlessly dark show did not feel like a hit when it premiered on Broadway in 1989. Namely, it was competing with the British import megamusicals of Les Miz, Cats and POTO. Also, it wasn’t based on a well-known property, nor did it feature a megastar (aside from the iconic Liliane Montevecchi, later replaced by Cyd Charisse).

However, the show got a dozen Tony noms, proved a critical hit and audiences flocked to see it. It even inspired this audience testimonial commercial, which likely would have gone viral if the internet were a thing.

In fact, I saw a very solid Chicago-based production about a decade ago – and it left me stone cold. As a result, I wrote the show off as a drab Kander and Ebb wannabe. Some lovely tunes, but overall, a slog.

But then, about a year ago, I revisited the cast recording to learn I’d underestimated the complexity of the score (music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston). While it’s certainly a somber piece in many respects, it’s much more than that: it’s aggressive, desperate, romantic and dangerous. And – even joyful. A perfect tone to tell this story of a group of trapped people — either by circumstance, social status or health — who are searching for an escape, and will do whatever it takes to get it.

So, I was willing to revisit the Grand Hotel — and Kokandy Productions, an off-Loop group that’s increasingly impressed me, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And: boy. I can’t stop talking about it. Director John D. Glover has built a finely tuned production comprising a stellar cast and creative team. The key to this staging is its sparseness, and the power each piece plays in setting the tone. In Theatre Wit’s compact black box space, scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec has effectively established an escapist hideaway from the rattle of post-WWI Germany — while providing a playground for Alexander Ridger’s nimble lighting design to swiftly shift between the play’s competing moods of hope and despair. Music director Aaron Benham has arranged the Kurt Weill-influenced score around three outstanding musicians: a pianist, percussion and violin.

Not a weak link in this cast, either. Each player in this ensemble-driven show delivers. The dangerously charming Erik Dohner as the part-time Barron and full-time hustler sings like a dream while powerfully conveying his struggle with maintaining his questionable moral code while meeting his debtors’ demands. As his latest conquest, Michelle Jasso beautifully embodies Elizaveta, a faded prima ballerina in the midst of her third farewell tour. Trailing in her shadows is Raefella (a stunning Liz Norton, whose cheekbones should get their own Jeff Award), Elizaveta’s stalwart handler who harbors a long-held secret love for her boss.

In separate-yet-linked story lines, there’s Flaemmchen (the radiant Leryn Turlington), a scrappy typist searching the lights of Hollywood, and a desperate executive (the always intense Jeremy Trager) who hires Flaemmchen as he escapes to the states following a bad business deal.

But perhaps the heart of this show belongs to Otto Kringelein, a mousy accountant who’s escaped his death bed for the chance of one final burst of life at the Grand Hotel. And, as Otto, Kokandy has secured the remarkable Jonathan Schwart, who so perfectly captures the bittersweet spirit of the show, it gives me chills just thinking about it. Also, the guy looks and sounds so much like the Tony-winning Michael Jetter — who originated the role — it’s almost unsettling.

But make no mistake: this isn’t a copycat production. This Grand Hotel is a wholly original and immersive experience, and I encourage everyone to book a visit.

“Grand Hotel” plays through May 27 at Theatre Wit. More information here >

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