Monday, December 04, 2006

Modern Rocks - Spring Awakening & Company - Theatre Reviews

Spring Awakening Eugene O’Neil Theatre, New York
Company Barrymore Theatre, New York

After a harrowing journey to get to New York City on Friday night during the storm with no success, and then almost causing an international incident accidentally while flying in Saturday morning (let’s just say we only discovered during the flight that I should not have been on the flight coming into the United States), I made it in to see my Broadway shows this weekend. Two musicals, a brand new one with modern music set in an old story called Spring Awakening, and a modern take on an old classic musical, Company.

Spring Awakening is essentially about horny teenagers in bloom and figuring out what to do with all those hormones, emotions and confusion about love and sex and relationships all set in the 1890’s, while Company is about grownups, all confused about hormones and emotions, love and sex and relationships all set in the present.

First up, Spring Awakening at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. The story is pretty basic. A German town in the 1890’s and teenagers are trying to grow up, while a strict adult society withholds them from doing so (with all the adults played by stage veterans Christine Estabrook (Desperate Housewives) and Stephen Spinella (24, 2-time Tony winner for Angels in America)). Most of the first act is just to set the time, space and attempt at rebellion within the strict “moral” society as we meet a group of kids that include Melchior (a terrific Jonathan Groff), our hero who questions the adult rules, his new love Wendla (Lea Michelle, who I remember as playing Little Girl in Ragtime, now all grown up (and out)), who just yearns to actually feel SOMETHING, and Moritz (a very funny but tragic John Gallagher, Jr.), who is so afraid of his failing grades and rise in hormones.

The story is a pretty dour and depressing one, and while nothing is really that shocking anymore to our society, the show (based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 book and truly revolutionary at the time) takes it from the teenagers perspective of growing up and deals with sexuality, homosexuality, abortion, rape, suicide… fun stuff eh?

What makes the musical completely enthralling and exhilarating is the music written by Duncan Sheik. Granted, I’ve been a fan of his for a while. He had a hit in “Barely Breathing” a few many years back, and since has brought out good albums (“Daylight”), great albums (“Phantom Moon”) but also some so so stuff. His music here though completely works as emotional vestiges for the characters to cry out their emotions and I had shivers down my spine several times during the show (I stopped counting after about 5). This hasn’t happened to me in a while now.

The modern rock music affectively counters the 1890’s setting and brings the old story to a current perspective. Add to that the audience seating flanking the sides of the simplistic (but effective) stage (which by the way, is an extremely cool experience though now I want to see it properly from affront) as the “watchful community” while peppered with modern dressed singers popping up as the chorus helps continue to blur the lines between the 1890’s story and how it is reflected in our own society today.

The young performers were energetic and had the most beautiful and pure voices, singing the extraordinary roster of songs. While it did not have the emotional connection of Rent (probably because despite the modern connection, watching the kids in costume still creates a watching distant effect, something you connect by the brain like reading The Crucible or The Scarlett Letter but not quite the heart, basically because Spring Awakening doesn’t play up any possible cheesy moments that sometimes Rent manipulatively (and effectively) does), Spring Awakening as a musical is still one of the most exciting pieces of new theatre I have seen and I know I’ll be going back again to see it (although another disclosure, I was also part of the Rent generation and while not a complete crazy Renthead, I did still see it 10 times (yes, I said TEN times) in 3 different cities (New York, Toronto (back when Jai Rodriquez wasn’t gay and a Queer Eye), London). The audience was probably only about 60-70% full on Saturday night but I hope (and think) that the Eugene O’Neill Theater will be filling up more often once word and reviews get around.

On Sunday, I caught the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Company, which is essentially, the story of my life (or will be). 35 year-old Bobby is a single man surrounded by many married friends and trying to navigate dating as his friends tell him to join (or not) them in the ritual of marriage. Every song is basically either an observation from Bobby about his married friends, from his married friends observing poor single Bobby, or from one of the many women he dates, and each song is a zinger for breaking down love, sex and relationships in our society today. Except, this was written 30 years ago even though it sounds like it’s just Sex and the City the Musical (only with a male lead perspective) which is how telling this musical is so contemporary yet timeless (basically, the shit they dealt with back then is the same shit we deal with now. No wonder Oprah is a bazillionaire).

This new Company, directed by John Doyle, is probably most famous for ditching the proper orchestra and handing the instruments to the actors themselves, who must do double duty acting and singing AND playing their own instruments. Talk about tooting your own horn. It’s a gimmick that Doyle has used before (in Britain a lot, on Broadway in last year’s Sweeney Todd) but I have never seen at this point. The effect is partial awe at the performers, who literally juggle singing while playing (especially those playing wind instruments) AND moving to an exact choreography within the brilliantly simple set (David Galo (who also did Evil Dead The Musical) basically using an old Greek/Roman column, a grid of lights, a Grand Piano, and a bunch of plexiglass boxes, all lighted to a beautiful effect by Thomas C. Hase).

The entire gimmick works because not only do they pull it off, it helps underline some of the major themes going on in the story of Bobby (who incidentally, is the only character not to play an instrument, at least until the very last cathartic song "Being Alive", which Raúl Esparza astoundingly pulls off in the most emotionally moving version I have ever seen or heard). The entire show is pared down to its most basic themes, making the show seem fresh and clean and completely new.

I loved the last version of Company I saw (in LA with an great cast that included Christopher Sieber (interesting note: who, like Raúl Esparza is gay, playing the quintessential straight man bachelor character) and Deborah Gibson (I know, laugh it off but she was actually quite good), but now seeing Raúl Esparza and this new take on Company, I felt like I had never seen it before, and saw so many new layers to the already amazing songs and the dialogue in between. Since the actors are also the orchestra, they constantly loom onstage, very watchful of our Bobby, and much like the teens watched over by the audience onstage in Spring Awakening, he is a shell of contained emotions ready to burst free.

While the whole company of Company is not the most top notch actor or singer, you do have to give it to them for being pretty good still considering they are singing, acting AND playing an instrument. Angel Desai is particularly spunky as Marta and changes my perception of “Another Hundred People”. Heather Laws sings the fastest possible song “Getting Married Today” to hilarious effect and Barbara Walsh does the Elaine Stritch song “The Ladies Who Lunch” quite the justice considering she isn’t Elaine Stritch.

Still, this is really Raúl Esparza’s coming out party (apparently literally from the New York Times) as a lead since he makes the most of Bobby’s quiet desperation and takes tunes like “Marry Me a Little” “Barcelona” and “Being Alive” to make the most living Bobby I have ever seen (or heard) interpreted. Plus while I haven’t seen any other John Doyle productions with the actor-musician pairing, apparently using it in Company is probably the best use of his gimmick in bringing out fully all the artistic symbiosis the effect could reach. Simply put? The best Company one could have around.


Anonymous said...

Oooh, I'm so jealous you got to see Company! While I cringed when I read the NY Times article on Raul Esparza (he needs a publicist who can tell him that newspaper reporters aren't the same as psychologists), I'm glad he's finally getting the credit due to him.

Sounds like they didn't change much from the off-broadway Spring Awakening, although as I recall the chorus was dressed in traditional costume, not modern. There's something about repressed teens in 19th century Germany pulling out microphones and singing their little rock & roll souls out that just seems so right. I can't wait for the cast album to come out!

Vance said...

Oh yeah. I forgot to mention the microphones which while I read could be distracting, I thought was totally a great artistic choice (along with the whole lighting scheme in the set).
Seriously, I CANNOT WAIT for the cast recording now. That was simply some of the BEST MUSIC AROUND. SHIVERS I TELL YOU! As for Raul, yeah. I saw him in Rocky Horror but not since but that was the most amazing Bobby he pulled off (and I want to see that show again TOO now).

Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested in this in-depth XM Radio interview with COMPANY director John Doyle

Vance said...

Cool, thanks!

jeremy said...

I've loved Barbara Walsh since her "Falsettos" days. Her version of Breaking Down is one of Broadways' shining moments. I haven't seen this version, but I can't imagine someone more able than her to sing "Ladies Who Lunch."

Vance said...

Oh, I heard about that Falsetto's. hmm... wonder if it's on disc somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Just got a chance to see Spring Awakening on your recommendation (bought tickets BEFORE all the unanimous rave reviews came out, thank goodness). It was AMAZING and totally lives up to the hype! Have never seen anything like that. I can't wait to go again. Thanks, Vance!

Vance said...

Wow. First off. Uh. Thanks for reading and listening! ha! None of my friends do! (Until years later. my old roomates used to HATE me for playing Rent until they saw it 5 years later and subsequently became obsessed... 5 years too late) Yeah, I'm trying to rearrange things in my schedule to come back to NY to see Spring Awakening again (just in case it doesn't survive past March) and glad that my hype (and all the critical hype) was warranted!