Monday, March 30, 2009

My First Time in Toronto - Spring Awakening - Musical Review

Spring Awakening - National Tour - Canon Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5)
Music and Lyrics by Duncan Sheik, Book by Steven Sater, Directed by Michael Mayer, Choreographed by Bill T. Jones

... and second, third, fourth... and... fifth time in Toronto (and now 14th overall, my reviews from Broadway here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Obsessed? A tad. So you get the gist that I REALLY REALLY REALLY like this musical and at this point, I can't really say anything more about the actual musical itself. It's just great, from the lighting to the choreography to the music, it's a great melding of a modern score and current musical songs with an artistic vision shown on a populist musical stage all to tell a tragic story of youth and society.

So really, at this point, while I hate to compare, it comes down to the casts and the differences in performances, interpretations, comedic timing, and strength of voices and overall energy. And while the original cast is basically the gold standard, the current National Touring Cast, with a temporary replacement for the Melchior lead for the Toronto stop (ironically losing the Canadian Kyle Riabko who left the show for a few weeks to film a pilot for ABC), is pretty terrific.

Luckily, while Kyle is away, we have Matt Doyle (looking adorable as Eric's mancandy on Gossip Girl, Bare Album) coming up from Broadway to take over as Melchior and Matt's Melchior is strong and confident much like his voice. Simply AMAZING. Both in performance and voice (and he ain't shabby looking either, eh!?).

Since Matt was still filming Gossip Girl during Spring Awakening's first week in Toronto, ensemble member Perry Sherman took over as Melchior twice. 1st of all, as much as I love original Melchior Jonathan Groff, and then the Hunter Parrish, and now Matt Doyle, the beautiful Perry Sherman does a fine job as an understudy and while their seems to be some nervous trepidation at times, he uses that energy and presents a very different, even more naive, more understanding and tender Melchior than I've ever seen. It's a nice and interesting take and I was again, in love with a new Melchior.

Blake Bashoff (above, Carl on Lost) is terrific as Moritz and has a vibrantly clean pop-punk-band voice.

Former Canadian Idol contestant Steffi D (above) is shockingly good as Ilse. Shockingly I say because since I watched her on Canadian Idol, famed from the little cute bowties in her hair, I could NOT see her in this show, let alone as wildchild Ilse when I heard she was first cast in the role. Steffi D is such a talent though that she excised any cuteness and presents a raw yet tender Ilse yet sings Duncan Sheik's beautiful songs with such a powerful voice that I'm re-evaluating her whole run on Idol).

Ben Moss (above left with Bashoff), the youngest cast member on the tour, definitely has a future with his beautiful voice. Sadly, as Ernst, he doesn't have that many solos. He plays the role tenderly but due to his boy-next-door handsomeness and solid frame, his Ernst seems slightly more in control of his own seduction (by Hanschen) than original Gideon Glick (or replacement Blake Daniel). He does play up his first kiss a little too broadly with an overly acted reaction, but I realized it's the only way to register it to the back of the gigantic Canon Theatre (when I finally sat at the back cheap seats versus the stage seats I saw during the first few viewings).

And herein lies the main problem with the show on tour. At least in Toronto. It's playing at the ginormous Canon Theatre, which really should only house large spectacle spfx shows, and not these intimate more emotionally based musicals that get drowned out by the enormous size of the theatre. While I luckily sat on the stage seats the first few times, I did check out the show at the back of the Mezzanine. On stage, the cast had the same energy as the Broadway cast, though I did find they played up a lot of SOME comedic elements in the show, while others got lost, or unemphasized. Out in the cheap seats, that same high energy gets dampened by the distance, while the overtly comedic parts seemed just right. It's tough for the cast to sell it all to the back of the theatre while keeping the same emotional core to the show, and I still think it was a huge mistake for Mirvish to house Spring Awakening in such a large theatre.

Christy Altomare's Wendla (above, 2nd from right) was lovely and beguiling up close, but all of that seems lost when viewed from high above. Her voice, while not as strong as original Lea Michelle, is still better than Broadway's follow-up replacements, but again, by the time it hit's the back Mezzanine, the simplicity of her voice simply registers as thin. If there is one true disappointment, it's Sarah Hunt's Martha, who doesn't do justice to her song "The Dark I Know Well". In her defense, I have yet find anybody who could kill that song like original Lilli Cooper could. That girl made it truly tragic, but Hunt's is merely evoke's a bit of sadness.

Matt Shingledecker (above, left), who I saw on Broadway, plays Georg on tour. I don't know if he was sick or not but he seemed inconsistent night by night. Some nights his voice was strong as ever, other times, his solo in "Touch Me" seemed frail and tired.

Andy Mientus (above, centre) plays it up as Hanschen and manages to characterize and simplify the role, yet also making everything more clear. In the end, I did like Andy's performance in which he puts an extra little swagger into the cocky Hanschen.

Anthony Lee Medina plays Otto, one of the smaller roles, but he certainly looks like he's having fun, always rocking out at the upmost energy, looking like he's always going to run and fall into the audience (on all 3 sides).

Kimiko Glenn's Thea never manages to illicit a laugh from saying "He's such a RADICAL" just before "My Junk" but her followup hand-covered gasp is a nice touch.

I also have to make a special mention to Jared Stein, the music director who sits at the rear of the stage with the rest of the young band. Never have I seen a more energetic music director (or one so young and so hot!), who looked like he was choreographed into the show as much as every other cast member. Stein was constantly bouncing around, SOOOO into the music, that it was as much fun watching him sometimes as it was to watch the actors.

There's also been some changes in the tour to accommodate the technical requirements, but while it's too bad there had to be some changes made to the graveyard scene, they manage to make it work and still bring in the fog effect. I also noticed a couple of changes in the lighting cues but that's now me getting obsessive again...

So until next time...

(So yes, if I get nitpicky, the production has some flaws and challenges to be met in the large theatre, but overall, none are reasons enough to deny oneself the pleasures of this great musical)

Here's some clips from the cast's performance at The Eaton Centre from last Friday:

Vance at


Esther said...

My guess is that on tour, Spring Awakening will play to a lot of huge houses. Part of it is that Broadway theaters are relatively small compared with theaters in other parts of the U.S. and Canada. It's playing in cities that have "one" Broadway-style venue and I bet in a lot of cases, it's a big one. The theater where it's playing in Providence is pretty big, too, maybe 3,000 seats, about three times the size of a Broadway house. But I could be all wrong on this. I'm just guessing, really.

Vance said...

No it's true. I know the Boston Wang Theatre is even BIGGER than the Canon. It's just that there are actually other options in Toronto and yet they chose to pick one of the biggest (if not the biggest) theatre in Toronto for these road shows just to try to pack them in. (They did close down half the Mezzanine but it's still huge with the closure).

Pun said...

Great review. Knowing Anthony Lee Medina, I laughed at your loving description of his bouncy energy. He truly is infectious.

Not having had the benefit of seeing the show from way back in a large theatre, I really appreciated your commenting on the differences. It's a shame that Christy's voice sounded thin...I think her voice is so beautiful. There has to be a better microphone solution for such large spaces.

We try very hard to pick theatres that are right for the show--we are aware of how space can affect our little intimate show-- but a lot of that is out of our control. Being a Broadway hit, the Mirvish naturally wants to put us in one of their larger theatres. I'm glad to hear you still enjoyed it from the nosebleed seats.

Thanks as always for your support,
(blogmaster for Spring Awakening National Tour blog)

Vance said...

Yah, that's why, sitting on stage, I loved Christy's performance but I could see why she got some negative reviews when I was out in the nosebleeds. It's more of an intimate performance that doesn't register when you can barely see her face, and her voice is so delicate that it doesn't carry out, but close up, she's fantastic. Again, the jokes register differently too. Also, my friends who saw it for the 1st time in the rear, didn't realize it was a knife or gun until they saw it on stage later. Which cleared up a LOT... haha...

Which is why I'm so against this massive theatre thing. It DOES change the show and loses impact for those not sitting up close.

Unknown said...

I am glad to read that others have found a differential in the quality of the show when seen from the 'nosebleeds'. I saw it for the first time this past weekend and was shocked to be disappointed by it. While the music is absolutely stunning and the actors (even from afar) exceptionally talented, I was uninspired by the overall effect. I found the storyline to be scattered and at times confusing, but maybe that's due in large part to where I was sitting? In any case I hope that others reading these reviews splurge for the closer seats, or consider adjusting their expectations. To me, this show can't possibly be put in the same category as Rent or other Tony award winners like Les Miserables or even Jersey Boys. Again, maybe just a problem of expectations...

Vance said...

See, personally. I think Spring Awakening is a better usical than Rent, Les Mis and JB (all of which I loved). It's better constructed, better directed and pulls more emotional strings. BUT. It really is an avant garde piece pretending to be mainstream, and it REALLY is an intimate musical that just happens to rock out. And I think it loses it's intimacy in such a giant space. I know from sitting on stage that those kids are stomping like MAD (cause I can FEEL it) but it's totally lost up in the nosebleeds which is too bad cause that experience of their sexual frustration is incredible and incredibly moving. My friends who saw it from the nosebleeds first, and then saw it up close, also noted the amount of human emotions on the actors faces which was totally lost from afar. Which I think is so integral in the storytelling here, especially since it's vignettes and not a whole story like a typical musical (much like Sondheim's Company I find)