Friday, February 15, 2019

Spring Awakening

Warning: This review will contain plot spoilers for the show, and due to the nature of the show and its themes, will contain some sexually explicit language and themes.

Long Island has a (fairly) new theater, The Argyle Theater in Babylon. This is almost the end of their first season. I only found out about them a few months ago. Now, Spring Awakening is a musical I've been wanting to see, and although it's played at one or two other theaters on the Island, somehow I've always missed it. (The sales director from the Argyle was quick to point out tonight that they are the first professional theater to perform it on Long Island, and I guess that's true. To the best of my knowledge, the only other two "professional" theaters out here are The Gateway in Bellport/Patchogue and the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport; all of the Island's other theaters are community theaters who use a combination of Equity and non-Equity actors, etc.)

I was interested in Spring Awakening during its original Broadway run, where it won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for a little more than two years. But I don't get to Broadway all that often, so I missed it. I did buy the cast album, though, and I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, so I was as familiar with a show as you can be without having actually seen it staged.

I didn't even try to convince my daughter to go with me this time, because she really likes happy musicals, and this show definitely doesn't fit that bill. I did invite my wife, but she chose (possibly for the same reason) to pass. So I bought myself a ticket for last Saturday, February 9.

Now Saturday was supposed to be a pretty busy for me, involving Weight Watchers in the morning, a trip to Nassau in the afternoon to get together with a bunch of our friends, and the show in Babylon on Saturday night. However, it didn't work out that way.

I suffer from occasional bouts of vertigo. I have for probably about fifteen years now. It's not big a deal, because I've learned over the years that a day's worth of meclizine usually knocks it out of my system. But until that medication takes effect, it's pretty debilitating. I hadn't had a bout in roughly two years, but I had a feeling that I was due, enough so that I recently had my doctor give me a fresh prescription, because the pills I had were well past their expiration date. It's a good thing that I did, because when I got up on Saturday, the room was spinning.

I started taking my medication immediately, but by mid-day, it was obvious that I wasn't going to be in any condition to go out that night. So I phoned the Argyle Theater, and they couldn't have been nicer about it. They let me trade my ticket in for a ticket on Friday, February 16.

So tonight, I headed out well before showtime. I found the theater with no problem. It's right on Main Street in Babylon, just a half a block east of Deer Park Ave.

The theater itself is nice and modern. It has a well-lit lobby with an appealing looking snack bar. It seems a little pricey - a bottle of water is $4 - but they're trying to make a go of it, so I'm going to cut them some slack. (The ticket was also a bit on the expensive side, at $80, but then again, that's in the same price range as the other two LI professional theaters.)

The inside of the theater is quite comfortable. There's some leg room, and the chairs (which I read somewhere were originally from the Beacon Theater in Manhattan) are soft and reasonably wide.

As we approached showtime, I could see why the theater had been so accommodating about letting me reschedule (although, to be fair, they might have been nice about it anyway) -- it was a great deal less than a packed house. (I couldn't see how many people were in the balcony). I bought an aisle seat, as always, and I was the only person sitting on my side of the theater. I guess it takes a while to build a following -- I suspect that a lot of Long Islanders still don't know the theater exists.

As it got close to showtime, a group of very elderly people (we're talking mid-80 year olds) showed up with a younger woman who must have been their caretaker from a retirement home. I heard part of her conversation with the usher, and it sounded as though none of them were familiar with the show. Given the somewhat salacious nature of the SA, I laughed to myself and said, "Yeah, this is gonna go over well." And the usher obviously agreed with me, because when he learned that the caretaker was intending to leave them there and pick them up at the end of the night, he advised her to leave her phone on. To their credit, the old-timers lasted until the intermission with not a peep of complaint. Then they ran (hobbled?) for the hills. Luckily, most of the rest of the crowd was pretty young.

First, about the show. It's based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, with a strong rock-music score by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Overall, I like Sheik's contribution more than I like Sater's. The tunes are excellent. The story is more of a mixed bag. It's basically a tale about the dangers of sexually repressing (and over-controlling) your kids. Sater does one thing that I definitely like, which is he writes most of the dialogue in formal and stilted language, but when the kids break into song (and their inner-selves are allowed to break free without adult restrictions), the lyrics are written in modern-day idioms, with titles like "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked".

I don't know if I'm totally sold on the play itself, though. I can (mostly) deal with its singing and dancing little teen horn dogs, although the various characters display a kind of hackneyed laundry list of possible sexual proclivities and/or histories. There are straight kids and gay kids, an s&m kid and a girl who's being physically and sexually abused by her father (with her mother's consent.) They're all hot-to-trot all of the time (except for the abused girl). Unfortunately, it's 19th century Germany, so they mostly don't know anything about sex, not even that it can get you el-preggo.

Sater mostly manages to make them real characters, and not just stereotypes, which is good. But the hostility the play shows towards all of the adults, who keep the kids uninformed, crush their spirits, physically smack them around a lot, and just generally make their little lives miserable, is more than a little off-putting. And of course, this leads to a tragic ending, where two of our three likable main characters are dead (one by suicide, the other by a back-alley abortion), and the third is just barely talked out of slitting his own throat by their ghosts. You can see why the octogenarians got the hell out of dodge. (I'm pretty sure the simulated male masturbation didn't help any.) My Fair Lady this ain't.

So let's talk about the production itself. I'll get my gripes out of the way first, which mostly have to do with the directing. The director here is a fellow named Matthew Earnest. You know how sometimes directors get a little bored with the source material, so they try to spice it up by moving the play to a different time period, or filling it with anachronisms, or making all of the actors perform wearing shark masks, stuff like that? Sometimes it can work, especially with a play that's been around the block a few times, and could use a fresh approach. For example, if you did a production of West Side Story, and you wanted to change the Puerto Rican gang members to Muslim gang members, I'd see the logic behind it. I'm not sure that Tony singing "Fatima" instead of "Maria" would flow off the tongue quite as smoothly, but it's a matter of taste. However, I don't see the logic here of having one mom run around the stage with a vacuum cleaner, or another dad watching something on TV when his son is trying to talk with him. In fact, it makes me very cross, very cross indeed! Like to the point where I want to smack him sharply on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and say, "Bad director! Bad! What did you do? WHAT DID YOU DO?!!" (I resisted the urge because thankfully, he passed on using the shark masks.) This is especially so because this particular musical is still fairly young in its lifecycle, and lots of us (Me!) have never even seen it performed the way its creators intended before.

There were a few other choices for the placements and uses of actors who weren't actually part of a given scene that I didn't understand, but they didn't really detract from the performance for me. (And having not seen the Broadway version, for all I know, they did the same thing there.) And there were one or two cases of blocking where an actor who wasn't really part of the action was placed upstage in such a way as to block my view of the actors who were part of the action, which I could have lived without. Other than these things, though, the direction was actually pretty good. (I'm not being facetious here. These might sound like major gripes, but the show was well cast and well paced, so that the night was still mostly enjoyable.)

The real strength of the show, though (other than Duncan Sheik's music) is its cast. The three main leads, Alex Joseph Grayson as Melchior, Corrie Farbstein as Wendla, and David Thomas Cronin as Moritz, were all quite good. (I thought that Cronin's performance maybe went a little over the top at the end. But then again, the character at that point has become pretty unhinged, so I think I have to let him have the benefit of the doubt.) Farbstein is particularly effective as the good-natured and amiable girl next door who is completely ignorant about sex (but who soon discovers that a nice thrashing with a birch branch makes her go all tingly inside.) The rest of the mostly-young cast is also first-rate, particularly Emily Nash as Ilsa, the bohemian girl who almost saves Moritz.

The production also features live musicians, who were fine. (I didn't hear any clunkers or anything that distracted me from the plot, so as far as I'm concerned, that's a win.) And I should mention that the choreography for the musical numbers, by Sara Brians, was quite good.

Overall, it was a solid night of entertainment. I will definitely return to the Argyle Theater again.

Spring Awakening runs through February 24th. Then, from March 14th through April 20th, the Argyle will be presenting their last show of their inaugural season, the musical version of The Producers.