Blah, Blah, Blah
So much about this show has been written about before; if you haven’t read anything about this show, don’t let this be your only read on the show before you go see it. Based on a 19th century play by Frank Wedekind that was banned due to its controversial content, this Best Musical of the Year is as everyone describes – high energy, electrifying, edgy, sexy, and moving. These adjectives are relevant to the national touring cast as well, mostly because the cast is a strong one. However, watching it again on tour after having seen it on Broadway reminded me that even though this show can be transporting, it can be equally irritating. The saving grace of this show is that it is very very good at one thing, which lies in its ability to overwhelm and to pull the audience in their whirlwind of emotion. The rockin’ score helps, as does the amazingly visceral choreography by Bill T. Jones. Utilizing modern dance for a Broadway show can be perplexing depending on personal taste, but I found that through dance, emotion was embodied to an even deeper level than already told through metaphor and song. (This was already discussed in an earlier blog entry, where Matt had an understandable problem with the nipple circles.) Throw in controversial subject matter such as teen angst, sexual discovery, identity, frustration at being misunderstood, and an oppressive society, and you have a guaranteed a Broadway hit, and a guaranteed obsessive young fan following. The first time I saw this on Broadway, I loved it and felt high off of its energy and waves of emotion.
As time passed however and made more apparent the second time that I saw it, there is an uneven balance of the theatrical heart and brain of this show that lends an incomplete and confusing picture. The heart, or the spectacle, is obvious and good – the sweeping emotion, the music, the dance, the story. This show however, adds highbrow intellectual elements only seen in more esoteric theater, such as microphones taken out of coat pockets, a song playlist scrawled on the chalkboard in full view, and audience members sitting onstage for everyone to see. This Brechtian style adds a certain distance from the show and the audience member, as they serve as constant reminders to the audience that you’re still watching a show. As Wikipedia states, Brechtian theory is based on the idea that “a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage.” This distant style never gels with this show that begs to envelop the audience in its emotional world, and instead, results in a disjointed big picture, and at worst, pretentious.
In addition, the characters and themes stray dangerously to being trite. Characters in the show are simplified to borderline caricatures – the jock, the spaz, the hot girl, in a world where all the boys are horny, all the girls are victims (whether their childhoods have been too hard or way too easy), and all the parents just don’t understand. Themes can be simple and powerful, but these themes – teens being misunderstood, desiring to be understood (“Touch Me”), and all parents are the same – at its heart is an uninspiring cliche that merely tells teens (albeit in a very pretty and powerful way) that other teens are going through the same thing, with no answers or revelations revealed in the process. I rolled my eyes when the term, “parentocracy” was actually said out loud, and had this urge to tell these teens, “The good news is that puberty doesn’t last!” There’s something unsatisfying about this show which ends on an ambiguous yet hopeful note, as an extra step in reasoning should have been included for this show to feel complete.
Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff
None of these comments take away anything from the stellar touring cast. As an ensemble they were outstanding, but the two Broadway imports – Kyle Riabko as Melchior, and Blake Bashoff as Moritz – were the strongest performances in the show. Riabko plays the self assured Melchior with a forceful strength that belies his smaller size; original cast member Jonathan Groff had the advantage of a larger more commanding presence, yet Riabko’s take is just as convincing. Bashoff portrays Moritz as a boy going through puberty filled with an unending high strung nervous energy endearing in his confusion and struggles, yet heartbreaking as he fails to come to terms with himself under society’s harsh spotlight. Christy Altomare rounds out the leads with her sweetly curious Wendla. Steffi D is a singing powerhouse, but her hard edged bitter style portrays Ilse as a character more resentful of her abusive childhood, which is very different from the original Ilse, Lauren Pritchard’s free loving commune living character who had absorbed all the hurt in the world. Like most national tours, this cast plays up the more comedic portions, particularly the subplot with the puppy love romance between Andy Mientus as Hanschen and Ben Moss as Ernst. The national tour cast successfully preserves the spirit of the original show.
As I was watching this show, a fellow blogger Patrick’s quote came to mind, which sums up my feeling about this show:
Every performance has a certain appeal to the senses, but once that immediate sensation fades into memory the intellectual underpinnings of a work become more obvious, and when they fail, you can end up feeling more frustrated and angry than you were at first.
This also explains why I loved it the first time that I saw it, and was more bothered by its rational aspects the second time around. It’s not that I don’t love it, and in fact, I would happily recommend it to a lot of people because the good parts about this show is mindblowingly amazing. But there are things about it that are still frustratingly irritating. It wasn’t surprising to see that on SFist, the comments about this show are highly polarized. I know there are going to be a lot of people who love it, and others who will be bothered by it, either at that moment or a year later, such as myself.
Spring Awakening plays at the Curran Theater through October 12
Any thoughts about this show? Opinions? Anyone else think that if Melchior had been 30 years older, uglier, overweight, with a ski mask, everyone would see the sex scene as rape, as he convinces Wendla with phrases such as, “Is it wrong… to love?” and “It’s just me!”?? And who the heck is Marianna Wheelin?