Having Tommy Tune direct "Grand Hotel," in which a deluxe Berlin hotel in 1928 is an image of Europe on the brink of catastrophe, is rather like making making the proprietor of a theatrical boarding house the manager of the Waldorf. He can handle anything that comes under the heading of showbiz, but the grander elements of the job elude him.
Thus the only time the show really takes off is during a great Charleston. The externals are there. The visuals are sumptuous, the sounds of the orchestra lush, but the storytelling is weak, the score weaker and the romantic spirit at its core is reduced to campy nostalgia.
Part of the problem is the literal-minded way musicals are conceived nowadays. If "South Pacific" had been written recently, it would have a song in which a man lamented being an elderly Frenchman (fillips of recognizably French music would ornament the melody) in love with an American girl half his age (when he describes her the orchestra would play some theme she had sung earlier in the show.)
Forty years ago, of course, what you got was "Some Enchanted Evening," which soared above the specifics of the situation to a general emotion everybody identified with.
In "Grand Hotel," songs Robert Wright and George Forrest wrote 30 years ago have been revised by Maury Yeston, who also wrote some new ones. A two-page program insert tells you who wrote what, but I doubt you'll care. None of it has any real power. The closest we come is a Yeston ballad called "Love Can't Happen." But it's grandiose rather than touching, and it is followed by the inane "Bonjour Amour," which trivializes the romantic surge that preceded it.
The material constantly avoids the full-blooded emotions of the story. The climactic moment, the businessman's murder of an aristocrat, takes place off-stage while we get an artsy ballet, a battle between Love and Death in which Love staggers blindly around the stage. Though the dancing is elegant, the pretentious concept and the tiresome music (a parody of Ravel's "Bolero") keep us from caring about what has happened.
The book parallels the film fairly closely. Occasionally actions take place simultaneously - a way of shuffling past scenes that wouldn't be strong enough by themselves.
By such devices Tune achieves a cinematic fluidity, enhanced by the fact that there is a basic set - glass and metal girders and elegant chandeliers that swoop in and out - with individual scenes marked by the constant reshuffling of chairs. (This sort of scene change does not excite the average Joe; but nowadays musicals are devised not for average Joes but rather of connoisseurs of musicals, who are thrilled by such "innovations.")
"Grand Hotel's" greatest asset is its performers, particularly Michael Jeter, who plays a terminally ill Jewish bookkeeper resolved to live it up during the little time left him. It is he who performs the aforementioned Charleston, illustrating his belated embrace of life. His hunched-over body, after a lifetime of self-abasement, suddenly explodes in joy. It is, quite simply, fabulous.
Timothy Jerome is surprisingly compelling as the businessman. He is the villain of the piece, but Jerome has fleshed him out so that his failings are human and not merely stereotyped.
Whenever David Carroll, as the softhearted baron, sings, the sound is thrilling, but as an actor he projects too much of a "tennis, anyone?" youthfulness to be convincing as the embodiment of dying European aristocracy.
Liliane Montevecchi works hard at playing a grande artiste but she is more comfortable as a vivacious comedienne, as when she tells the young baron, "I have toe shoes older than you." When I heard she would play the Garbo role, I knew the show would be an exercise in Cute. She rises above this as much as Tune lets her.
Karen Akers has little to do as her faithful companion. Jane Krakowski, as the typist with Hollywood ambitions, never gets to do much beyond camp. There are strong contributions by John Wylie, as the cynical, morphine-addicted narrator, and Bob Stillman as an expectant father.
There are oddly powerful moments, but they seem out of place. From time to time a crew of sooty workers from the basement appears making fierce sounds.
They're a little too butch for this show; I kept wishing their energy could be bottled and shipped around the corner to "3 Penny Opera," where the material would sustain their anger.
Tony Walton's set, mesmerizingly lit by Jules Fisher, conveys the period splendidly, as do Santo Loquasto's opulent costumes. Peter Matz's orchestrations are spellbinding, and the onstage orchestra plays superbly under Jack Lee. After a while you get tired of relishing textures. You keep wishing there were a show beneath the elegant surfaces.
Tommy Tune's luxurious and spectacular new musical "Grand Hotel," which opened its doors at the Martin Beck Theater last night, is a show with a view, and has a whole room service smorgasbord of assorted goodies.
But - and let us face it from the start - one vital thing is missing from that menu.
As Broadway has learned over the years, there are musicals and concept-musicals - the latter being shows where the total dramatic idea was at least as important as the individual songs strung upon its theme.
"Grand Hotel" is a concept-musical where the concept, which is intriguing, seems to be far more important, and even rather more evident, than the music, which is dull. In fact the show has a Tune where its tunes should be.
The idea - defiantly hackneyed but enormously effective - is to follow the people who go through the revolving door of a grand hotel, along with the people waiting on the other side to serve them, and to tell the story behind every room key.
These are short stories twirling on a theme of money - set in the ugly Georg Grosz/Bertolt Brecht twilight of Berlin just before Adolf Hitler's grotesque dawn.
The musical is based on the novel, play and movie by Vicki Baum - probably the all-star 1932 MGM movie was its best-known previous manifestation - and has been penned by the team of Luther Davis (book) and Robert Wright and George Forrest (songwriters), which had its biggest success quite a few years ago with the Rimsky-Korsakov assisted "Kismet."
I have no idea quite how long "Grand Hotel" had been lounging around in Broadway's lobby before Tune, its director and choreographer, decided to open its doors, and arranged for it to be refurbished with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, who earlier collaborated with him on "Nine."
Of the 22 numbers in the score, Yeston wrote the music and lyrics for eight, and revised the lyrics for a further 10. So the show has been musically at least more than a little switched around.
The irony is that it is still the music and lyrics that make "Grand Hotel" a thing that goes bump in the night when they actually needed to be propelling it into theatrical orbit.
Yeston's contribution is markedly superior to the rest, but not markedly enough.
Tune, on the other hand, has done everything for the show short of making it sit up and beg - and what he has done is not only sumptuously imaginative, but for some people could conceivably be enough.
First he has given it, with the help of his designers, a glamorous atmosphere that can only be described as deluxe, and yet also seedily decadent.
Tony Walton's imaginative permanent two-tier set supported by four pillars - the orchestra is on top, sitting happily above the enormous chandeliers and the dozens of glit chairs - enables the action to move with all the speed the story's linked vignettes demand.
Walton has provided the three-star Michelin glamour, capped with a gorgeous front-curtain conspicuously only used for the curtain calls! But it is Santo Loquasto's costumes that plonk the story down evocatively and persuasively into the Weimar Berlin of 1928.
So, all in all, Tune has created a spectacle to relish and remember, while his device of a cyclic structure - taken partly from the old Edward Goulding movie which itself had a linking narrator - provides it with an intriguing kind of "La Ronde" dramatic design.
Then again, the use of two adagio dancers (the gifted duo of Yvonne Marceau and Pierre Dulain from the American Ballroom Theater) as silent commentators on the action is another masterstroke helping to provide the evening's tone and sensibility.
Then, even more important, Tune has peopled his musical with stereotypes but often galvanized them into vivid life with his choreographic and directorial vision.
Some of the performances - particularly the gorgeous Lilian Montevecchi as a fading ballerina, Michael Jeter as a dying bookkeeper determined to live once before death and spending his life savings on a week or so of final splendor, and Jane Krakowski as a tough little typist dreaming of Hollywood - are etched in movement, as much choreographed as directed.
All three are excellent, but the evening is full of carefully modulated performances, including a raffish David Carroll splendid (not least in his singing) in the old John Barrymore role of the gentle-conscienced jewel thief, Karen Akers as the ballerina's lovelorn lesbian confidante, Timothy Jerome as a brutish business magnate, John Wylie as the cynical narrator, and Rex D. Hays as the pompous and venal Chief Concierge.
Everyone has thought of everything for this musical - there is even a rather strained note of social significance struck with some regularity by scullery workers banging utensils! - except for the songs. Except for the songs.
The director and choreographer Tommy Tune may have the most extravagant imagination in the American musical theater right now, and there isn't a moment, or a square inch of stage space, that escapes its reach in ''Grand Hotel.'' The musical at the Martin Beck Theater is an uninterrupted two hours of continuous movement, all dedicated to creating the tumultuous atmosphere of the setting: an opulent way station at a distant crossroads of history in Berlin - that of 1928. Think of a three-dimensional collage - or a giant Joseph Cornell box two tall stories high - filled with the smoky light, faded gilt fixtures, dirty secrets, lost mementos and ghostly people of its time and place. Then imagine someone shaking the whole thing up as if waves were tossing around the Titanic. That's Mr. Tune's ''Grand Hotel.''
Is that enough to make a musical? Not really, as it happens, but ''Grand Hotel'' should satisfy those with a boundless appetite for showmanship untethered to content. Visual craftsmanship doesn't get much more accomplished than this on Broadway. In a departure from the current fashion in theatrical spectaculars, Mr. Tune creates a world on stage without resorting to rococo naturalism or substituting money for creativity. Tony Walton's stunning set, in which an orchestra occupies the lofty second tier, is but a deep, dilapidated shell in which dreamy abstract imagery (strings of pearls floating inside transparent structural pillars) stands in for a literal hotel floor plan. Santo Loquasto's costumes and Jules Fisher's lighting - equally brilliant evocations of Expressionism - don't try to wow the audience with Technicolor eruptions but instead hold to a dark crimson-to-sepia palette that suggests the vanished luxury pictured on frayed antique postcards and the fever dreams of a world on the brink of Depression and war.
Mr. Tune's restless manipulation of these resources is often inspired. In the opening number - a directorial tour de force to match the equivalent prologue, ''Wilkommen,'' in Harold Prince's Weimar Berlin musical ''Cabaret'' - phalanxes of performers crisscross the stage in ever-changing configurations, the characters individually singing of their lots, until finally the audience sees the panorama of lives, upstairs and down, intersecting throughout the vast hotel.
Though the effect is that of cinematic crosscutting, there's never an intrusion of scenic machinery to yank the characters about. ''Grand Hotel'' finds its kaleidoscopic activity and churning pace in the constant rearrangement of the dozens of straight-backed chairs that are the set's dominant furnishing, or in the sudden appearance of a quartet of desperate phone callers in a cacophonous downstage tableau, or in the hallucinatory fragments of period dance steps along the shadowy periphery of main events. As in Mr. Tune's ''Nine,'' the large cast is omnipresent and usually on the run. So dense is the atmosphere that finally it can be stilled only by eradication - an effect Mr. Tune accomplishes in the coup de theatre that brings the evening to a close.
Even then, one remains haunted by this show's imagery. One does, however, forget nearly everything else. ''Grand Hotel'' never delivers those other, conventional elements one might want in a musical - attractive songs, characters to care about, an exciting cast. Nor does it work up the good cry achieved by the all-star 1932 M-G-M film. This ''Grand Hotel'' impresses the audience without engaging it, and, when the titillating dramatic promises of the opening sequence lead nowhere, monotony and impatience set in. One would have to go back past ''Nine'' to Michael Bennett's ''Ballroom'' to find a Broadway musical with so large a discrepancy between the mediocre quality of the material and the flair of its presentation.
The first instinct might be to blame the book, which in this case is not an adaptation of the Hollywood ''Grand Hotel,'' but of the Vicky Baum novel that was its source. Yet the author, Luther Davis, and the unbilled book doctor, Peter Stone, have done an efficient, clever job of compressing a complicated narrative into a scenario that recalls the movie's solid structure while altering some of its details. What's missing is the flesh that, in a musical, must be filled in by songs and performances.
Mr. Tune is presumably responsible for the evening's central failing, the miscasting of the doomed lovers at its center. Liliane Montevecchi, as a ''dying swan'' of a ballerina facing the end of her career, is unconvincing in or out of a tutu as a ''great artist'' of transparent vulnerability; her thin physique and Russian character name do not camouflage the temperament of a brassy French cabaret chanteuse. While David Carroll, as a count reduced to cat burglary, has a beautiful voice, his silver cigarette case seems more aristocratic and Continental than its owner. One doesn't have to make invidious comparisons to Greta Garbo and John Barrymore to see that the romantic and sexual chemistry between their stage heirs is nil.
Most of the other principals are only adequate: Jane Krakowski as a secretary who fantasizes about sleeping her way to Hollywood stardom, Timothy Jerome as a business tycoon in crisis, John Wylie as a bitter World War I veteran. As Ms. Montevecchi's devoted confidante, Karen Akers could pass as a dark-haired impersonator of Carol Channing's Lorelei Lee - with height, kewpie-doll makeup and bangs to match. But when Ms. Akers sings it's as if Lorelei Lee were on Quaaludes: taking her catch-in-the-throat vocal style to a fetishistic extreme, Ms. Akers slurs every lyric into unintelligibility. Were she not dressed as a man, even the love she feels for the ballerina would dare not speak its name.
Perhaps a stronger score would have buoyed the acting. One can see what might have been when Michael Jeter, as the dying clerk Otto Kringelein on a last fling, is given a musical number that expresses a character's emotion. Celebrating his liberation from clerkdom into high living by stepping out, Mr. Jeter lets loose like a human top gyrating out of control -literally breaking out of his past into a new existence. Fine as the performer is, it is because a song and choreography for once dramatize a character dynamically that this song is touching as the evening's others are not.
Though emphatically arranged (by Peter Matz and Wally Harper) and conducted (by Jack Lee), the rest of the score leaves the characters stranded in banalities. The only catchy melody is a cabaret number, ''le jazz hot'' style, for a dance team (David Jackson and Danny Strayhorn), and it doesn't build, even choreographically, as similar turns did in Mr. Tune's ''My One and Only.'' While that number is by Robert Wright and George Forrest ( ''Kismet''), many others are by Maury Yeston (''Nine''). Mr. Yeston could not resist writing a solo for Ms. Montevecchi titled ''Bonjour Amour,'' and his big love ballad may give Andrew Lloyd Webber his first opportunity to accuse another songwriter of being derivative.
Mr. Tune also has his odd derivative moments. When he uses a pair of ballroom bolero dancers as metaphors for love and death or a chorus of advancing scullery workers to symbolize proletarian rage, he skirts the conceits of the Prince musicals ''Follies'' and ''Sweeney Todd.'' Like the book's allusions to growing anti-Semitism or ponderous stabs at moralizing (''We're all dying, Otto''), such pretentious themes seem out of place in Mr. Tune's show and hardly substitute for the more basic ingredients that are missing. But even such lapses fail to obscure the director's own original gifts. Mr. Tune has built the grandest hotel imaginable in ''Grand Hotel.'' It would be a happier occasion if so many of its rooms weren't vacant.