With less than a week to go before the local premiere of the Margaret Howard Theatre College’s 2017 musical, Grand Hotel, Iggy Fenech chats to the artistic director of the school, Ben Darmanin.

The link between the Maltese theatre circuit and that of the UK is a very tangible one. For generations, in fact, local artists and actors have sought to train and work in one of the world’s top theatrical scenes – that of London’s West End – and from the Brighton to the Edinburgh Fringe, Maltese talent continues to leave its mark. Of course, that link needs to be constantly nurtured and strengthened, and one UK college doing just that is the Margaret Howard Theatre College (MHTC), of which Ben Darmanin is the artistic director.

“It’s such an exciting role,” says Darmanin, who recently became the first – and thus far only – Maltese person to be awarded the title of Associate of the Royal Academy of Music for Musical Theatre. “On the one hand, this role means I am involved in the day-to-day running of a performing arts college, while on the other hand, the role gives me the opportunity to help train young hopefuls, including the nine Maltese students currently attending MHTC.”

Darmanin, through his role at MHTC,  has been at the forefront of building on the link between Malta and the UK. On his own initiative he also organises A Week in the Life, which sees young Maltese hopefuls going to London to train with professionals involved in huge West End blockbusters, including Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Oliver! Seven out of the nine Maltese students currently studying at MHTC are, in fact, A Week in the Life alumni…

The upcoming musical, however, will be further evidence of all that’s been achieved as Maltese and foreign actors/ singers/dancers travel down to Malta to put on Grand Hotel – The Musical.

“Grand Hotel may not be as well-known as Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King, but it offers some great opportunities to the cast that go beyond the obvious,” explains Ben. “The musical’s subject matter is complex as it tells different stories within the main narrative and, as a college, it is important for us to help students find an individual performance within an ensemble.”

The musical is set in an era of opulence, glamour, new ideas and often frightening realities of life. In other words, Grand Hotel is a rich tapestry with depth that doesn’t only challenge the performing arts student but also offers an interesting perspective to the audience.

Dan Holland as The Baron. Photo: James HudsonDan Holland as The Baron. Photo: James Hudson

Based on the novel by Vicki Baum, Menschen im Hotel, the musical by Luther Davis, who also worked on classics like Kismet and Timbuktu!, has lyrics and music by the composer-lyricist team made up of Robert Wright and George Forrest, as well as additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.

Set in the 1920s, Grand Hotel – The Musical, tells a story of a time in between wars, when the stock market was booming, Berlin was the centre of high life, and optimism ruled the day. Yet, as all this is about to come crashing down due to the rise of the Third Reich, a group of individuals find themselves in the fabulous setting of the world’s most luxurious hotel.

For the nine Maltese students flying down to take part in the musical, which will run between Thursday and Saturday at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier in Valletta, this will be an amazing opportunity for them to perform on home ground, to audiences dotted with family and friends. Meanwhile, for those students who do not hail from Malta, this will be a great opportunity to experience a different cultural scene from the one they are used to in London and their home countries.

Moreover, as I discovered when I went to a rehearsal of last year’s sold-out show by the MHTC at Spazju Kreattiv, Once on this Island, the students will also work hand-in-hand with the production team to understand the way touring productions work. The team will be comprised of Kevin Fountain, the head of the college, Jordan Li-Smith, an OFFIE Award-winning musical director, choreographers Holly Penny and Helen Conway, as well as Ben and Margaret.

The team will be joined by percussionist Kristian Schembri and lighting designer Chris Gatt, both of whom worked on last year’s production, too.

Ben Darmanin. Photo: Chris Agius DarmaninBen Darmanin. Photo: Chris Agius Darmanin

“Although this is a student production, it is a student production with a difference,” Ben continues. “Having already been put on in the UK, it is nice for both us and the students to revisit the production in a different space and in a different country… The level we require from our students, however, reflects industry requirements. After all, when students leave MHTC, they have to be ready to face to one of the most demanding and professional theatre circuits in the world. It’s also great for them to get to meet industry professionals in Malta, including Kristian and Chris. It’s a great that they can see collaboration at first hand, and they’re both a joy to work with from our end.”

Just as importantly, however, the musical promises to be a fun night out full of glitz and glamour through its recreation of the styles of a decade that gave us car racing as we know it and the cult of the ‘the young and beautiful people,’ which led to it being referred to as the Roaring 20s. The visuals used in this production – particularly the beautiful costumes that have been created specifically for it – are certainly another reason to go see it.

So, if you’re up for a night at the world’s most luxurious hotel as some of Malta’s and the UK’s best up-and-coming talent play the well-rounded characters of the Baron, the Bellboy, and the aging Ballerina to name a few, there is only one invitation to accept: That of attending the fabulous Grand Hotel – The Musical.

Grand Hotel – The Musical, by the Margaret Howard Theatre College, runs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Spazju Kreattiv, Valletta.


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