There are images and motifs to stretch credulity sprinkled throughout the scripts of the dark Grand Hotel, but the opening scene of an eye-patched Colonel-Doctor Otternshlag throwing his head back in sinister glee as he stuffs a syringe full of morphine into the veins in his left arm establishes an ironically light tone to this macabre musical.
The Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League (PHAMALy) is not afraid of exploring the dark side of musical theater--as they did to splendid effect in last summer's Side Show. But their approach to Grand Hotel manages to see through the surface level corruption and societal disintegration to find a kernel of hope around which they've built the foundation for the play.
Director Steve Wilson manages to find optimism in Berlin at the dawning of the Third Reich, and his cast brings so much enthusiasm and admiration for the material to their performances, that the audience is won over long before the final curtain. The musical offers a challenging score and complex, multi-textured characters that set it beyond the aspirations of all but the most ambitious. The play is a series of connected vignettes following several of the guests and staff at the Grand Hotel as they wrestle with various foreboding conflicts just barely preceding the unraveling of the fabric of German culture in the '30s.
PHAMALy succeeds in staging a captivating and transcendent production, but few of the characters stand out as original creations. Many of the roles serve as pleasant reminders to characters who remain the province of previous actors in other productions. Otto Kringelein is one of the notable exceptions, and Jim Hubbard's performance in the show-stealing part falls neatly into the ranks of distinguished actors to take on the role in the past. As the only Jewish character at the hotel, Kringelein is the victim of some ugly anti-Semitism, but even though he comes to the hotel to die in luxury, he faces his days with a refreshing optimism. "We'll Take a Glass Together" is the highlight of the show, and even with limited choreography, Hubbard's character-driven energy sends the audience dancing through their imagination.
Amateur is part of PHAMALy's name, so it isn't surprising when the singing isn't always razor sharp, but more often than not the company exceeds the expectation of its audiences. Among the stand-outs from the cast are Miriam "Mimi" Rebecca Homes and Linda Joy Wirth as the Ginny's, a pair of "rub-a-dub" duet who bring numbers like "Maybe My Baby Loves Me" to life, Katrina Weber as Flaemmchen, a typist on the verge of desperation as she tries to create the break she needs to make it in Hollywood, and Stephen Hahn in a dual role as a knuckle-busting chauffeur and as Zinnowitz, a lawyer advising one of the other principle characters. Hahn has a powerful stage presence, and his ability to play such disparate characters in back-to-back scenes is mesmerizing. His duet on "The Crooked Path" with Charles "Chaz" Jacobson as Preysing is a confident performance that epitomizes the heart of this company.
The play is a real ensemble piece, and it is easy to get caught up in the characters who might otherwise be thought of as having supporting roles, but the leads give solid performances, highlighted by the 1st Act finale, "Love Can't Happen," a duet between R. Matthew Deans Margaret Klein as a fallen baron and a failing ballerina. Klein shines again on her 2nd Act "Bonjour Amour," showing that she can't miss when she opens her mouth to sing.
Although the disabilities of many of the performers make for substantial choreographic challenges, "Who Couldn't Dance With You" features a beautiful dance complete with intricate wheel chair maneuvers that are astonishingly graceful. It is a remarkable achievement to bring such a sunny shimmer to this dark play, and although Wilson's direction often leans toward the melodramatic, but with the balancing ballast of the script itself, the result is an evening of satisfying theater.