Monday, December 01, 2008
We heard about Spring Awakening when it splashed across last year's Tony Awards so prominently, so we were eager to see it now it's come to LA. It's an intriguing concept, taking a 110-year old play and adding a contemporary musical score to it. But then again, Rent (perhaps my alltime favorite play) was the same notion. The notion works because some themes -- love, loss, and in this case, teenage angst and burgeoning sexuality -- are timeless. In this instance, the play's timeframe and characters are not modernized. The students are drilled in Latin lessons in their conservative academy, the costumes are period 1890s, and the characters' names reflect their small German village. All that contrasts with how remarkably identifiable these characters and their young passions are. Like an arc of electricity linking 19th century Germany to America 2008, these quaintly clad characters grab microphones and belt out rocking tunes by Duncan Sheik. (And those tunes were totally rocking. Both at intermision and at the finale, I left with the music continuing to pump in my head.) I expect those of late teens and twenties will connect directly with the feelings of the characters presented, while us older folks have memories of those years vividly recalled by the emotional authenticity of the play. The visual aesthetic was in the style of Rent, a spare set with few props and a few things to climb on, and unabashed use of microphones rock-band-style. Some scenes were minimally but movingly visualized (a funeral scene in particular), some explicitly visualized, while others left tastefully to the imagination. The use of one male and one female actor to play all of the adult roles was brilliant. The adult women are variations on the same template (though with emotional differentiation), while all the adult men seemed indistinguishable, a strict emotion-repressed Teutonic authority figure, "the man", as they say. It was the theatrical equivalent of the adults in the Peanuts comic strip who all go "wah, wah, wah" to the kids' ears. There were a couple of minor detractions. The choreography is rock-band-style rocking, jumping, and climbing, except for a couple of puzzling exceptions, where one of the main characters breaks into these odd frantic arm movements looking something like Village People semaphore, except I couldn't tell what he was trying to spell out. The other detraction is the final number. The haunting emo number suits musically, but the lyrics fail. Just where an anthem of emotional summation is needed, we're given some incoherent abstraction about "purple summer". Fortunately, the dramatic arc was essentially closed in the song before, and the finale is just an excuse to get the whole cast on stage and send the audience out in the right mood. Overall, the whole production is so strong that I'm more than happy to overlook those two minor detractions, and we came away moved and humming. This is a great play for those who are young (but not too young -- high school and up) and those who remember being young. Parents taking their high school children should have some interesting conversation after the play.