Monday, January 18, 2016

A Show for All Seasons: With 'Spring Awakening,' Musical Theater's Dark, Dramatic, Youthful Side Plays Well at Marriott -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Spring Awakening 
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru January 31

The first time I saw Spring Awakening, in January 2007, early in its initial Broadway run--it's back again. but only briefly--I thought it was brilliant.

And even groundbreaking.

Sure, young-skewing musicals featuring rock-infused scores and themes of sexual liberation have existed since Hair in 1968, and this month marks the 20th anniversary of another such paragon--Rent--but in focusing on late-19th century German teens daring to unrepress their libidos amidst domineering (and oft-hypocritical) parents and authority figures, Spring Awakening not only features a highly charged score by Duncan Sheik and R-rated sexuality, it is one of the most dramatic musicals I've ever seen.

By 2012, I had seen Spring Awakening--with book & lyrics by Steven Sater--three more times, twice in downtown Chicago on National Tour stops and as a college production at Northwestern University.

But though I would regularly cite it among the best musicals of the 21st Century, and ranked it in the top 20 of my all-time favorite musicals, I can't say that it's been top of mind in recent years.

Especially as Broadway has continued to see edgy, distinctive and progressive musicals--In the Heights, Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Matilda, Fun Home, Hamilton--the 2007 Tony Winner no longer felt like such a startling and rare example of emotionally-dense narrative, prurient shock value and a contemporary score in lieu of traditional showtunes.

And I really don't think I would have thought anything too amiss about seeing Spring Awakening included in Marriott Theatre's 2016 subscription season.

Yes, a high percentage of seniors comprise the subscription base--said to be the country's largest--of the Lincolnshire in-the-round venue, but although the programming respectfully reflects this, recent seasons have seen Legally Blonde, Hairspray, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and self-created productions of HERO and October Sky.

I obviously can't intelligently speak to anyone else's preferences, predilections or aversions, but having attended numerous shows--at the Marriott and elsewhere--with large numbers of seniors, my sense is that they appreciate quality in any form and aren't nearly the prudes that they may be perceived.

Be that as it may, in a move without known protocol, Marriott Theatre decided to produce Spring Awakening as a 3-week special presentation outside of its 5-show subscription season.

I attended on Opening Night last Saturday and was reminded just how good a musical Spring Awakening is.

And I'm pleased to report that my mom, a few years older than me and warned to be wary by my sister, greatly enjoyed it too.

With one of the auditorium's four sides blocked off for scenery (including strong video graphics) and musicians in a way I've never seen before at Marriott, the Spring Awakening stage setup reminded of that I saw at Broadway's Circle in the Square, and benefited from intimacy I lacked in the balcony of the Loop's massive Oriental Theater.

Director (and Marriott Artistic Director) Aaron Thielen's production is generally pretty strong, as is the cast.

Patrick Rooney makes for a rather good Melchior, a strong pupil who is derided by teachers for his friendship with class misfit, Moritz (well-played by Ben Barker), whose angst really forms the heart of the show, even more than Melchior's romantic liaisons with Wendla (a nicely-sung Eliza Palasz).  
One of the show's conceits comes in the way the characters, in group numbers and solos, sing into hand held microphones--sometimes pulled out of their clothing in ways that felt not only inorganic but a tad unnecessary.

But with his spiky hair and use of a microphone stand, Barker's Moritz couldn't help me think of David Bowie--during the week of his passing--and how Ziggy Stardust, et. al. had helped change social mores during my lifetime.

And Sheik and Sater's high-energy songs of the suppressed--"The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "My Sadness" and "Totally Fucked"--are well-voiced and kinetically presented by the show's rebel rebels.

Especially in trying--and somewhat successfully, at least on Opening Night--to bring in a younger audience, Marriott would do well to turn up the amplifiers on these hard-rocking songs, as the bristling energy is much of what makes this show special.

Yet, despite this, along with a sense that Spring Awakening can only be "most electrifying" once and a questionable scenery decision that put metal poles in the way of some lines of sight, I still found the show to be terrific.

Perhaps because the rockers came off a touch muted, emotive ballads like "Touch Me," "The Dark I Know Well" and "Left Behind" sounded particularly powerful, and the dramatic resonance of Spring Awakening remains strong.

The poles in Thomas M. Ryan's set design--often used to represent doorways and to allow for various perches on which characters contemplated alone or came together in tandem--didn't tremendously bother me, but I can see how they could be a nuisance depending on one's specific seat. But Ryan's use of video imagery upon the backdrop added a touch I don't recall from previous productions.

Chicago theater stalwarts Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik are likably unlikable as they rotate through a variety of mostly unsympathetic adult characters, and everyone playing the male and, separately, female classmates comes off well, particularly Adhana Cemone Reid as Martha.

And having liked her so much in Ride the Cyclone recently at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, it was nice to see Tiffany Tatreau back on stage.

At 47, I don't think I can really be described as a young theatergoer anymore, but nothing about Marriott's rendition diminished my thought that Spring Awakening is one of the best musical theater creations of my lifetime--especially of shows not derived from famed source material, though it is based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same name.

I would like to believe those up to 30 years younger than me would value seeing Spring Awakening, and excepting $50 regular ticket prices, this is as good a chance as any for those in Chicago's northern suburbs.

But save for those who loathe rock music and being reminded of their own lustful youth, I'd like to think theater lovers 30+ years older than me would also value Spring Awakening's many merits.

I understand Marriott Subscribers can see the show at a considerable discount, and with the above caveats, I highly recommend it. In fact, unlike Marriott's typical 7-8 week runs, I find it something of a shame Spring Awakening won't even last until Groundhog Day. 

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