Thursday, May 05, 2011

'Spring Awakening' Still Holds Up, But Is Ready For a Downward Progression -- Theater Review

Photo by Andy Snow -
Theater Review

Spring Awakening
a recent musical presented by Broadway in Chicago
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru May 8

I think it's somewhat unfortunate that national touring productions of Next To Normal and Spring Awakening are both playing in Chicago during the same week. (This is the second & final week for NTN and the only one for SA.)

For while it's always great to see the downtown theaters abuzz with activity, my suspicion is that these two musicals--both among the very best of the last five years--may cancel each other out in terms of ticket buyers with time to see just one show. Although each show is completely unique and extremely worthwhile its own right, they are both mold-breaking musicals that are heavy on drama, feature an original rock-infused score and aren't based on extremely famous source material (though Spring Awakening is derived from an 1891 German play).

Both have also offered discounted tickets on HotTix so it's easy to imagine some may wind up choosing one over the other. If you're in this boat this weekend, I'd recommend you go to see Next To Normal (which I reviewed here). It's definitely the better production, even though I believe Spring Awakening is the better musical.

More so than Next To Normal did when I saw it for the first time last week, Spring Awakening blew me away when I saw it on Broadway in January 2007, just weeks after its opening. It was one of the freshest pieces of theater I've ever seen and its rock score--sometimes quite hard rocking--by Duncan Sheik was truly exhilarating on a number of songs. The choreography by Bill T. Jones, even in a relatively small setting, was likewise outstanding as the show dared to explore sexual repression and awakening among Bavarian teenagers.

Although the show began its first national tour in 2008, for whatever silly reason it didn't arrive in Chicago until August 2009. I saw it then and again enjoyed it, though not as much as with the original cast. And although its current visit to Chicago wasn't included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription, I like the show enough to opt to see it once again--likely for the last time--on the level of a national tour.

And I'm glad I did. The source material is great enough that I was sufficiently entertained and satisfied. I recommend it to anyone, even if it means seeing two musicals this weekend.

Photo by Andy Snow
But whereas Next To Normal now playing in Chicago features a Broadway-level cast including the Tony-winning star Alice Ripley--though I guess she's missed some performances--this version of Spring Awakening features a non-Equity (the actor's union) cast and thus virtually no one with Broadway pedigrees.

This isn't to say the performers weren't talented; I found almost all--including Coby Getzug (at left) as Moritz--to be more than adequate. But they were clearly a step, or two, down from what I'd seen on Broadway.

And probably not any better than a cast of Chicago-based actors & actresses would be. Given the relative sparseness of the staging (even on Broadway), this is a show perfectly suited for a local troupe to present, say at the Theatre Building, or even for a non-prudish college theater department to present.

I don't know if it's licensed down to that level yet--although the numerous empty seats on opening night in Chicago suggest that the touring version may be running low on financial gas--but it should be.

This is an awesome show that would thrive on the excitement and energy of great young performers, anywhere, and the size of a venue like the exquisitely beautiful Oriental Theatre was actually a detraction. Not only was the acting and singing not quite sensational, even the band wasn't quite on, with an under-amped guitar dampening the power of early Act I rocker, "The Bitch of Living."

To be fair, Act II's phenomenal "Totally Fucked" brought the house down and reminded me of the exhilaration upon first seeing Spring Awakening. So although it may be hard to tell, this is a much more positive than negative review. If you've never seen the show, you really should, and now's as good a time as any.

But I'm looking forward to seeing the show rocking out--and heck, breaking windows--in a Chicago storefront theater in the hopefully not-too-distant future. It's time for Spring Awakening to revitalize itself on a local level.

(This is a clip from the Broadway version I saw, starring Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.)

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