Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stopping Just Short of Rapturous Adoration

My review of “Spring Awakening” is available on newsstands as we speak and will probably be online momentarily. Also in this week’s Style is Mr. Griset’s rave about “Blithe Spirit.”

First off, I feel like I have to apologize for “ribald” being used in the photo caption. I don’t write the captions and whoever wrote that one had no real sense of the show. Maybe that’s my failing in my review for not making it perfectly clear that the show is not a “saucy romp” in any sense. In fact, I’ve been surprised how often the words “dark” and “disturbing” have come up in my few discussions with people who saw the show and weren’t familiar with it beforehand. (UPDATE: I just noticed that Mr. Houser's name is also misspelled in the caption. Oy. Sorry. Also, here are links to the "Spring Awakening" review and to the "Blithe Spirit" review.)

But to me, this darkness is one of the most powerful aspects of the show. It is not a joyful show, by any means, but it is still a show full of joy, primarily the joy of discovery. The teen years can be intensely painful if for no other reason than you are being introduced to a whole new category of feelings. The genius of a song like “The Bitch of Living” is that it captures both the specific anxieties of sex-discovering boys but also the universal existential angst, e.g., “It’s the bitch of living / Just getting out of bed.” What working class stiff doesn’t feel that on some Monday mornings?

It’s inevitable that as soon as you find out how rapturous love can be that you find out that, just by entering into the world of adult relationships, you have opened the door to a lot of suffering. Of course, “Spring Awakening” piles on the pain by stacking up a wide litany of calamities -- incest, abuse, abortion – in addition to the plain old first-time-falling-in-love circumstances. This is the nature of theater – particularly musical theater – to take this kind of situation to ‘11’ as it were. As I wrote last summer after watching a production of the non-musical version of the same story, it’s also the strength of musical theater in general and this show in particular that the music taps into and amplifies the universal feelings of rebellion and longing and desperation that characterize the teenage years.

I hope my review gives a sense of what I love about this show. What was harder to communicate was the ways the show itself (not this particular production) falls short. Specifically, I think the end is a cop-out and a bit dissonant, something I felt more strongly after seeing the Broadway version than the VA Rep version. You have Melchior who is almost revered because of his atheism (among other things) who is saved by mystical, other-worldly spiritual communication. As I said to my wife, if this was Shakespeare, Melchior would have just killed himself. But that kind of downer punchline at the end of a bleak-ish show would have been pretty relentless. Still, the promise of a “Purple Summer” seems a little wimpy after the intensity of death, loss and heartbreak. Also, the portrayal of the parents is always a bit problematic. The idea is brilliant – being played by the same actors, all the adults come across as nearly interchangeable obstacles to happiness. But as written, the roles vacillate wildly from fairly realistic to cartoonish, getting in the way of that universal adult idea. (The straight play version I saw had all of the adults in masks, which was a great way to enhance this idea.)

Zeroing in more specifically on the VA Rep production, I think Liz Jewett’s review at Richmond.com and mine make a good pair. I think Ms. Jewett and I both saw Chase Kniffen’s steady hand clearly in control at the helm of this production. Mr. Kniffen brings a great sense of stagecraft to the show in smashingly creative ways. I loved the monster projection screen, I liked the swings, I liked Starrene Foster’s choreography apparent in the movements of the players across the stage. As much as I liked the production, I also felt that the whole enterprise could have benefitted from a little more freewheeling fun and/or in-your-face intensity. I’m not sure if the actors were a little tired on opening night or a little reluctant to go bonkers with the older opening night patrons. But the one thing I remember clearly from the Broadway production was the sense of kids physically and emotionally busting free from the restrictive bounds of their lives. There was a lot of that kind of energy visible in the video projections; I wanted to see and hear more of that energy on stage.

I think Ms. Jewett wanted more of that kind of energy from Ms. Thibodeau and Mr. Houser in the lead roles. Personally, I think the two of them play out the dance of their courtship perfectly. In particular, I think the minute of masochism that punctuates their affair happens fairly organically versus when I saw it on Broadway and the violence truly seemed to come out of nowhere. Overall, the cast was exceptional and the ensemble numbers were great. Daniel Cimo and Owen Wingo had a great “attraction of opposites” chemistry. My companion for the evening remarked on Josh Marin several times, while I was impressed with Richard Chan. Both of us were sad not to see and hear more from Allison Gilman and Lucy Dacus stuck over in the onstage seats.

I didn’t have space to comment on Sarah Grady’s costuming in my review because my feelings were a bit mixed. I was told after the show that the ensemble members mixed into the onstage seating were each wearing outfits from a different decade. I wondered whether some of that sensibility figured into the costumes for the rest of the cast because there was such a disparity between pieces like Ilse’s jumpsuit. Wendla’s airy white outfit and Martha’s buttoned-down look. I liked a lot of what I saw but wondered about some other things I saw. As always, Sandy Dacus’s band did a great job, though I wanted more of a rock concert feel to the proceedings, as I alluded to in my review. I expect that may not be a universal feeling and that musical theater goers in general might think the rocking score already pushes things far enough without having someone demolishing the drum kit or lighting a guitar on fire.

One of my favorite movies is “Thelma and Louise” and there is a similar vibe to it as “Spring Awakening.” The leads discover a new world and are free for the first time but that freedom comes at a cost. I’ve felt exhilarated at the end of “T&L” every time I’ve watched it and I feel similarly at the end of “Spring Awakening,” enough so that I’m trying to arrange my schedule to see it again. I was hoping to spend some time in the “tweet seats” during this Thursday’s performance but I couldn’t make that work, unfortunately.

A friend I talked to last weekend remarked on how Theatre IV got complaints about Peter saying “Ass” in “Peter Pan” a few years ago, and now that same company (essentially) is doing “Spring Awakening.” Wiping away mock tears, she said, “I’m so proud of Richmond.” This production does represent a step forward for the Richmond theater world and it’s remarkable in many ways that VA Rep chose this as its first show. Of course, now the challenge falls to the larger community: if we want companies to take the leap and produce hipper, edgier, more challenging work, we have to do our part and urge friends, neighbors, and strangers we meet at Martin’s to go see the show. If lack of audience causes big companies like VA Rep to reconsider shows like “Spring Awakening,” then in my view, Richmond will be like Melchior: “Totally Fucked.”


philcrosby said...

Dave --

I adore that VaRep is taking a risk with its production of "Spring Awakening" and that critics and audiences are responding positively! But you know as well as I do that theaters in Richmond have been producing this kind of edgy, hip and provocative work for decades.

If Richmond Triangle Players or Firehouse Theatre Project had produced "Spring Awakening" as a part of its season, no one in their audiences (or the critical community) would have raised an eyebrow, because it's what we do all the time. The difference here is venue.

I agree with you that if VaRep can get its more conservative audiences to accept this kind of work, than the whole community will benefit. But please, this kind of theater is far from new in Richmond!

S said...

Thanks for this! Can't wait to see it!

Dave T said...

Very good point. And I would argue that the growth in popularity of companies like yours is a result of you continuing to push the envelope and appeal to more adventurous audiences. Sorry for my reductive thinking!

Anonymous said...


I loved Spring Awakening and can't wait to go again. I love that Richmond is embracing innovative theater. As a theater patron and avid reader of your blog I'm dissapointed that there hasn't been any mention of the upcoming productions Joe Jackson's Night and Day and Rocky Horror. I was elated that Firehouse chose Rocky as their summer musical. I saw previews of both shows at Culture Expo and was blown away. I also read in Richmond Magazine today about Rocky Horror. I saw this online today and was really intrigued;


Have you been privy to any details about these shows?

love your insights!