The set of "Grand Hotel" gives you a pretty good idea what to expect from the next show in the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's 2019 season. Or, rather, what not to expect.
The title of the show, and its setting, is spelled out in gold art deco lettering against the maroon background of a sign that hangs over the stage of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. But the sign isn't centered. Rather, it hangs to the side, at an angle. Steps and platforms haphazardly clutter the stage itself, a grand staircase in every sense but the symmetry.
So any notion of balance in "Grand Hotel" is out the window before the lights dim.
When they do, jeweled strings drape from the ceiling, separating the orchestra on the second tier from the set's catwalk. They also reflect the expressive lighting of the 1920s Germany setting, from the bold colors of Weimar decadence to the chiaroscuro of the period's art. And, together with the ritzy columns and railings, the strings suggest imprisonment — but whose?
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Director and choreographer Brett Smock, the festival's producing artistic director, does a fantastic job posing that question through the cast of "Grand Hotel." From the eccentric leads to the ensemble, they lure you into what appears to be a lobby, but instead functions as a way station where vulnerable souls collide at lightning speed. They sing and dance, sure, on highlights like "The Crooked Path" and "The Grand Parade," which use disparate vocals to make the show as disorienting musically as it is visually. But their stories are what define them.
Appropriately enough, a different talent also distinguishes each lead: the comic timing of ballerina Grushinskaya (Michele Ragusa), the genial presence of dying Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Dino Nicandros), the powerhouse vocals of the broke Baron Felix Von Gaigern (Patrick Cummings), the showy dancing of aspiring star Flaemmchen (Samantha Sturm) and the hand-wringing of corrupted businessman Hermann Preysing (Mark Hardy). Among the standout support is Kristen Gehling as Raffaela, who struggles to bottle her affection for her boss in Grushinskaya, and Neal Benari as Dr. Otternschlag, who gruffly narrates the proceedings when he isn't shooting morphine to suppress the pain and memories of World War I.
"Grand Hotel" has little story of its own to summarize. It's more useful to start with the characters, because they drive the action as they interact, as their interests align or don't. Likewise, for most of those characters, the show doesn't end with any sort of satisfaction or equilibrium. They simply check out, and their stories continue elsewhere. But our imaginations remain captive.