by Wright, Forest & Yeston

Performed in
July 2006

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Off the Wall Theatre pulled out all the stops at its tiny black box theatre at 127 E. Wells Street for this musical. They filled the space with twenty-seven actors, singers and dancers to do a full blown production of the Tony Award Winning musical, GRAND HOTEL. Considering that the theatre’s audience capacity for the production was fifty, this was quite a ambitious feat. 

The show Grand Hotel is based upon the book by Vicki Baum, and looks at the comedy, romance and tragedy taking place in a hotel in Berlin in the twenties during one eventful night. The book became a classic film starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and John Barrymore. The musical version is a non stop montage of movement and song. 

Off the Wall Theatre Director would not have even attempted to do such a huge and difficult show in their tiny space, had he not acquired the expert help of two very talented people, Jack Wilson and Nancy Visintainer-Armstrong.

Jack Wilson, as everyone knows, is a musical genius. What many people don’t know is that he first came to Milwaukee twenty years ago to work with Dale Gutzman, and together they created a series of original musicals for the Marcus Center, then called the PAC. Jack went on to have a very successful career as performer and musician, coming together now and again with Dale to do such shows as FOLLIES and COMPANY

Nancy Visintainer-Armstrong is the choreographer who went with Dale to Thailand to work on JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, a show that was shown on national television over there for the birthday of His Majesty the King of Thailand. Considering the fact that the opening number of GRAND HOTEL alone lasts fifteen minutes and contains intricate dancing as well as four part layered singing, Dale knew he could not undertake such a task without the very best our city has to offer. Jack and Dale came up with the unique concept that everything in the show took place around the hotel lobby piano. Ramps covered the little theatre all circling the piano. Ramps extended through the audience and up stairways overhead. The very talented musician Adam Baus was selected by Jack and Dale to be the “HOTEL PIANIST.” 

To fill the twenty-seven varied roles, Dale contracted almost every major performer with whom he has worked in the last six years. From the recent Skylight Theatre production of MAN OF LA MANCHA, came David Flores as a ruthless businessman, Bob Hirschi as a mentally and physically crippled doctor, and Karl Miller as a poor Jew having the fling of his life before he dies. Marilyn White played the Garbo role of the aging ballet star, and Tamara Martinsek played her devoted companion. The role of the young Baron who falls in love with the ballet star was played by Joseph Fransee. Sharon Rise played the Crawford role of a secretary who wants to be a Hollywood movie star. Jeremy Welter played the young desk clerk whose wife is about to deliver a baby. 

Other Milwaukee favorites filled the rest of the cast of singers and dancers, each one carving out a unique, distinctive character. The show sparkled with almost non stop music and such varied dances as The Charleston, the Foxtrot, and grand ballroom waltzes. Seldom if ever has such an ambitious production been attempted in such an intimate space, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Gutzman hadn’t spent the previous five years “squeezing” shows creatively into Off the Wall Theatre. This is not a “cut down” production, but a full blown staging of a very impressive Broadway musical hit.