The scene is Berlin, 1928, Grand Hotel. It's the most expensive hotel in Europe, a place of luxury on the fringes of morality, where love and death dance a sinuous tango and everything is beautiful -- for a price.
The musical that director-choreographer Tommy Tune has fashioned out of Vicki Baum's novel -- also the source of the 1932 Academy Award-winning movie -- checked into the Mechanic Theatre last night.
Sometimes sentimental, but never mawkish, the production is the equal of its Broadway counterpart, with the exception of a few uneven performances. The overall effect is fittingly elegant and eerie, a fluid pastiche with a book by Luther Davis and a largely underrated, period-influenced score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.
The pinnacle of Mr. Tune's achievement comes in a fast montage of scenes in which plots involving most of the major characters are acted out simultaneously.
At center stage, an impoverished baron makes love to an over-the-hill prima ballerina. Meanwhile, on the second tier of Tony Walton's set, the ballerina's excessively devoted confidante paces sleeplessly. Off to one side, a captain of industry propositions his typist, and off to the other, the hotel's imperious concierge attempts something similar with his startled desk clerk.
On the silver screen such scenes are seen in sequence; on stage, Mr. Tune has blended them into a flowing comment on the different faces of sex, love and power.
Repeating her Broadway role, Liliane Montevecchi is a stirring mixture of fatality and fragility as the ballerina. And as the baron, Brent Barrett, another Broadway import, is suave and charming with an appropriate leading-man voice.
But two major players fall short. As the drug-addicted doctor who narrates the action from the sidelines, Anthony Franciosa is cynical, but he needs to be sinister, too; and his singing is simply inadequate. And in the most touching role, that of Kringelein, a dying bookkeeper determined to experience life at last, former Marylander Mark Baker gives in too easily to shtick, robbing the role of pathos.
Visually, the production presents a picture of crumbling grandeur, and in one respect, the touring set surpasses the one on Broadway. In New York, the orchestra occupies the upper tier, a distracting, claustrophobic scenic choice. In this set, the second level is primarily a storehouse, stuffed to overflowing with extra and broken-down examples of the gilt chairs that fill the pillared lobby.
Like the novel and movie, "Grand Hotel, The Musical" debuted in the uneasy calm before a war. But it has an unmistakable resonance for current audiences as well. Sitting in the comfortable confines of the theater, with war raging overseas, we don't seem all that different from the guests at Grand Hotel -- desperate souls, trying without success to insulate themselves from the horrors and ugliness outside.
"Grand Hotel" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through March 17; call 625-1400.