Monday, February 14, 2011

Mama who bored me


After desperately wanting to see Spring Awakening for the past few years, I have to say that I was rather underwhelmed by it when I finally made it to the Los Angeles leg of the tour this weekend, where it was playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.  It wasn't the fault of the actors, whose youth and vigor were well-suited to the specifications of the play.  Certainly, my expectations were quite high, but when it came to the storytelling, I found the show to be rather uneven, which along with the distracting set design, detracted from what could have been a solid, focused morality tale.

I'll start with the aesthetic.  If you have any familiarity with the play, you know going into it that it's a modern alt-rock musical set in 1891 Germany, where adolescents struggle with the same imbalance of education and sexual urges that plagues the world today.  So it's cool to see these extremely childlike-looking actors with cartoonish hairstyles, dancing to modern music while dressed in 19th Century school uniforms.  Even as far as the band members in plainclothes seated upstage, this all contributes to an easy-to-understand juxtaposition of the old and the new.  But add to that the onstage audience members, complete with unnecessary plainclothes audience plants, and the busy flair all over the walls, and the result is a jumbled hodge-podge when the story would best be served by a black box setting - a Sisyphean transformation for the Pantages, I know.

The music, which is the play's greatest asset, starts out very strong with well-crafted hits "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and "All That's Known," but other than a second act standout with "Our Bodies Are the Guilty Ones," the songs feel forced, or sometimes completely at odds with the emotional temperature of the story beats.  Just like R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet (hear me out), the grandeur of the music didn't often match the mood of the concurrent scenes.  Courtney Markowitz, as Ilse, sang beautifully on "The Song of Purple Summer," though.

These criticisms are especially deserved when it comes to the story itself, though.  The tragic romance of Melchior and Wendla (roles originated by Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele) could be a great archetype for the dangers of withholding critical knowledge from people, and conversing with young people in an open and honest way.  Terrible things happen when ignorance is king, and the central coupling of the show could have been a new, unconventional version of star-crossed lovers suffering from the same lesson.  But the imbalanced additions of secondary characters whose storylines seemed included to confront the audience without sufficiently contributing to the message.

The standout performer, for me, was Sarah Kleeman, who took on all roles of Adult Women in the show, and perfectly transitioned from persona to persona with subtle vocal trills that gave depth to seemingly minor characters.  I know my negative opinion about the show is an unpopular one, but to me, Spring Awakening was a victim of its own hype.  I had heard it compared to the quality of recent breakout hits In the Heights and Wicked, and this praise was, as I saw it, off the mark.

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