Kringelein (Barry James) is one of the paying guests at Grand Hotel, the Broadway musical of the Garbo-starring film of the Vicki Baum novel set in 1928 Berlin. He's blowing all his money on a last-ditch effort at living, but he's such an all-out sentimentalised symbol of honest, plucky life that this reviewer could hardly wait for his sickness to be fatal. Just in case you don't cotton on to the contrast this figure provides to the decadence, morbidity and shady morals around him, Barry Foster's chorus-like Colonel, an embittered, crippled doctor with a sardonic stage-side manner, helpfully spells it out: 'Look at him, he's dying and wants to live. I'm living and can't wait to die . . .' Now that's what I call a paradox.
To be fair, a great deal of this musical - with its tuneful, above- average songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest and dance routines by the director, Tommy Tune - is very entertaining. At the end, Kringelein may conclude that 'life resides in people, not places'. But one of the good things about the piece is that it also lets us see events from the perspective of the hotel which, forever reconstituting itself, is finally indifferent to the fates of all the various people who pass through its revolving doors - such as Liliane Montevecchi's faded ballet star, and her devoted lesbian companion (Debbie de Coudreaux); Brent Barrett in superb voice as the handsome, improvident Baron who falls in love with the ballerina when caught stealing her jewellery; and the excellent Lynnette Perry, who's like a tougher version of Monroe in the part of the pregnant stenographer with sights set on Hollywood.
A hotel is a tangle of storylines; you can't constrain it to any one genre. Sometimes, though, the show could bring this out rather more subtly. To have the young front-desk man crooning a ditty over the phone to his newly born son just as the hotel is trying to adjust to the fatal shooting of the Baron makes the point in a heavy- handed manner, although I liked the way the criminal types passing through the lobby at the time cast appropriately filthy looks at the carolling father.
There's an intermittent attempt to show us all levels of life in the hotel, the most oppressed layer being, it seems, the butch, bare- torsoed scullery men who appear once or twice and sing about haves and have-nots while bashing crates meaningfully. Overworked in the hotel, maybe, but they seem to have a nice cushy number in the musical.
Garbo was 26 when she played the role of the superannuated ballerina; Montevecchi, both touching and wittily self-mocking, is much more the right age to impersonate a dying swan. Her individual storyline is, of course, eventually engulfed in the endless soap-opera of the hotel, from which the cynical doctor cannot tear himself away. 'I'll stay one more day,' is his habitual concession. Indeed, if you want to see a musical, you could do far worse than check in to Grand Hotel.
Continues at the Dominion Theatre (Box office: 071-580 8845).