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Q&A: Move over Garbo! Signature Theatre checks into ‘Grand Hotel’

Nicki Elledge and Nkrumah Gatling star in "Grand Hotel" at Signature Theatre. (Courtesy C. Stanley Photography)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Grand Hotel' at Signature Theatre

Jason Fraley

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It was a 1932 Best Picture winner where Greta Garbo famously cried, “I want to be alone!”

Now, pack your bags and check into “Grand Hotel” at Signature Theatre through May 19.

Adapted by Luther Davis from the 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, the story is set in 1928 Berlin, where the bustling Grand Hotel plays host to an eclectic array of guests and hotel staff. This includes an aging ballerina, a destitute baron, an aspiring-starlet typist and ailing bookkeeper.

“It’s this huge, beautiful, crumbling world,” actor Bobby Smith told WTOP. “Different people come and experience life in a way they have not experienced it before. They cross paths, they meet each other, they find their similarities and time is running out in everyone’s life.”

That not only applies to the brisk 90-minute runtime, but also to Europe between two wars.

“We’re about to get into the ’30s and know the onslaught of the second world war is coming,” co-star Nkrumah Gatling told WTOP. “Also, they’re recovering as a group from the first world war, which just ended not too long ago. So, we’re kind of in the in-between time. It’s basically how they all affect each other, how you can walk into a place and your life and the things you say and the actions that you take can have profound ramifications on somebody else’s life.”

These individuals’ unique back stories, pressing needs and future desires fuel the piece.

“The Baron is part of a dying class,” Gatling said. “He’s had to resort to thievery to continue keeping up appearances, but he’s still a man with a heart of gold. He wants to resist that way of life that he has to be in now and he does that in his kindness to others. He never goes all bad. He’s the bad guy you’re rooting for like, ‘He may rob me, but man, he’s so charming!'”

Smith’s role is far different as the bookish Otto Kringelein living out the twilight of his life.

“Otto is a book keeper who finds out he hasn’t long to live,” Smith said. “He decides he wants to cash everything in and come to the Grand Hotel and live his life to the fullest before he passes away. … There’s a certain joy to everyone there, whether they’re losing their lives or addicted to something or adrenaline junkies, whatever it is, there’s a joy that goes with it and the experience of the hustle and bustle of this incredible, iconic hotel at the time.”

The dancer Grusinskaya is played by Signature favorite Natascia Diaz (“Crazy for You,” “West Side Story”), while the typist Flaemmchen is played by Nicki Elledge (“A Little Night Music”).

“The role of Flaemmchen is a secretary who wants to go to Hollywood,” Smith said. “We find out that she’s pregnant and has a reason to want to live life to the fullest. Nicki’s great.”

“They both are equally fantastic,” Gatling added. “My character falls in love with Natascia and she’s simply electric on stage. She really brings such a life to the character.”

Composer Maury Yeston contributes to a songbook by Robert Wright and George Forrest.

“My favorite song is ‘Love Can’t Happen,’ which is a song that happens between The Baron and Grusinskaya,” Gatling said. “It’s a profound [love] song. … When you find that person, sometimes it can be shocking to you like, ‘Wow! Love can’t happen like this! This is not the way it happens, right?’ Which it never is. It never is the way you imagine it to be.”

In between the musical numbers, the orchestral score times perfectly with the dialogue.

“This lovely, soaring melody at the beginning and end of the show that Maury Yeston wrote is really lovely,” Smith said. “If you know that the orchestra never stops playing and we’re in-sync with it in our dialogue, it makes it mind-bending. … You’d get in rehearsal and thought you did the scene really well and you’d hear, ‘You ran out of music. Go back and do it again.’ Then you’d do it again and it’s like, ‘You went too fast this time and we have too much music.'”

While the task is challenging, it makes the end result that much more special.

“When you do get it together, it’s so wonderful,” Gatling said. “Bobby has a wonderful part where he lines up the script. I think it’s like, ‘I came here today,’ and [the music] is like [sound effects] ‘blink, bloonk, bloonk’ and everything goes right with what he’s saying! It makes it magical. … Just because a line is not sung doesn’t mean that it is not orchestrated.”

The music is married with movement by choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise.

“It’s really 1920s, Charleston-y,” Smith said. “The movements are subtle because there are so many stories being told, but we break out in dance a few times. Nkrumah and I cut a rug.”

All the while, Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer stages lavish period visuals.

“The costumes are simply fantastic,” Gatling said. “The quality of work and imagination from Mr. Robert Perdziola are fantastic, as well as the set, which is an immersive set. It’s like you’re actually sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel. It will blow your mind away.”

This immersive experience is particularly the case at Signature Theatre.

“We’re lucky because Signature is so intimate,” Smith said. “About 300 seats and there’s a big full orchestra and you’re two feet away from the actors, so it is immersive and I think it provides a different experience from most of the larger houses in town. [Come] support the arts, support live theater that’s intimate and doing bold and challenging work. It’s important, it’s life changing and bring the kids! We need young people to experience live theater.”

Find more details on the Signature Theater website. Listen to the full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'Grand Hotel' cast (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

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