Theater Review: Spring Awakening

Lust. Domestic violence. Sex. Abortion. Questioning authority. Suicide. Rape. All of these are elements of the book Spring Awakening, written by German writer Frank Wedekind in the early ’90s. The 1890s. This may explain why the book was banned in Germany and in English-speaking countries for decades.

Most, though not all, of those same elements, plus a large dollop of indie-rock written by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, appear in the 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening, playing at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady February 16-21.

The wife’s Valentine’s Day present for us was a pair of tickets to the opening night this past Tuesday. Really, all we knew of the show was what we saw on the Tonys, and that was almost three years ago.

So we got a babysitter and hoofed it over a few blocks to Central Avenue in Albany to catch the bus to Schenectady. We had gotten 5.3″ of snow that day, the most the city had received in 2010. For the record, CDTA got us there (and back) quite adequately, thank you.

Before the show begins, I am awed by the set. There is no curtain so it’s just there. You can see snippets of it in the Tony performance, but it hardly does it justice. Bleachers are both stage left (two rows) and stage right (three rows) and people are already sitting out there when the principles come onto the stage to sit with them. So the excellent, eclectic band is likewise on the stage from the beginning, everything from keyboards and drums to a cello? But it works.

As for the technical aspects of the performance, I was also wowed by the choreography. Not just dance per se, but how the players moved about the stage, passing off or getting microphones. The lighting was also first rate.

The first three songs advanced the story quite well, high energy and great entertainment value. Yet the core action at the end of the first act, which involved a couple of the aforementioned elements felt, for want of a better word, stagy.

Somehow, the second act redeemed it for us, with the best song in show, the tune that got the biggest audience reaction, and the one that my dear wife says we all feel now and then, Totally F***ed (I’m serious here: NSFW or for sensitive ears, big time.)

If you see it, and you should, then it will help to know that two people play all the adult roles; in the production we saw, both actors appeared in various episodes of the Law & Order franchise, which is no surprise. Spring Awakening is ultimately “a cross-generational phenomenon that continues to transcend age and cultural barriers,” as the promos suggest, and I am thinking that a greater knowledge of the plot will help the novice theater goer appreciate it more.

Something I didn’t know until recently: Lea Michele, who plays the annoying but talented Rachel on the TV show Glee, was the lead in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening.

And now the musical will become a movie. Not sure just how that’ll play. I can’t really imagine it, but then I couldn’t fathom MAS*H being a weekly television series, either.

A review of the Wednesday’s performance suggested a small-than-expected crowd. We felt the same way about Tuesday’s performance, but I had attributed the smallish crowd to the weather. I theorize that, despite its awards, it’s pretty much an unknown commodity, relatively speaking; I mean, it’s not South Pacific.


REVIEW: Menopause the Musical

My wife and I used to go to the movies, go to the theater, attend concerts. The last four years, we’ve done it far less. I have seen far fewer movies, hardly any concerts, and virtually no theatrical shows. The season tickets to Capital Rep, the Equity theater in Albany, right now are a thing of the past.

But a confluence of events allowed me to go see Menopause: the Musical last month. My wife was away at college for a couple weeks. During the first week, I took our daughter to day care and picked her up at a friend’s house, well, except for one day when I decided to pick her up.

That first weekend, I took the daughter to Grandma and Grandpa’s house a little over an hour away, where she stayed during the second week of my wife’s educational sojourn.

Since my wife had suggested that she wasn’t interested in seeing Menopause: the Musical, I decided to go myself. One of my co-workers had gone, once in Boston and again at Cap Rep last summer. She had to go twice because everyone was laughing so hard, she was missing some of the dialogue.

I opted to go Wednesday night, July 9, which turned out to be opening night for this run. I had been “warned” by my colleague that there wouldn’t be many men there. Au contraire! There were eight, maybe nine guys in the audience, a couple guys together, a handful who appeared to be with their wives or girlfriends, and me. This does not count the two “Mr. Wonderful” gentlemen who accompanied Maggie, the chief wrangler for the theater, and another Cap Rep rep on stage to introduce the production.

In short, I enjoyed it tremendously. The conceit of this program is that these four very disparate women, meeting in Bloomingdale’s, bond over “the change”. It is made uproarious by the writer Jeanie Linders taking the tunes of popular songs, every single one of which I knew, and changing the lyrics. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” becomes “Puff, My God, I’m Draggin'”. “My Guy” becomes “My Thighs”.

I bought the soundtrack from the production in Chicago, but I found the cast in this production even more appealing. Only one of the four, Satori Shakoor (Professional Woman), was in last year’s Cap Rep production, but she and her colleagues, Ellen Kingston (Soap Star), Stephanie Pascaris (Earth Mother), and Liz Hyde (Iowa Housewife) worked together as though it were mid-run, not the premiere.

There were a couple things, though. A young woman sitting next to me was texting during parts of the performance, which I found not only distracting, but silly; watch the performance! Also, afterwards, several women gave me this LOOK, which I perceived to mean “Are you shocked by all this? Are you OK?” Yes, I am fine, thank you, and well entertained.

Menopoause is currently playing in Louisville and Las Vegas, in addition to Albany, and will be come coming to a theater (more or less) near you in the coming weeks.

Go Where You Wanna Go?

So who’s in charge of those instant, unscientific polls AOL does? After Denny Doherty of the Mamas & the Papas died a couple days ago at the age of 66, AOL asked for the group’s favorite song among these choices:
* California Dreamin‘ – their first big hit, going to #4, and showing up in so many ’60s compilation albums that I’d grown tired of it, but an obvious choice
* Monday, Monday – #1 for three weeks, features Denny’s lead vocal
* Creeque Alley – this is the song that features “Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat, and after every number they passed the hat”, referring to Doherty and a couple of future members of the Lovin‘ Spoonful. “And no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass.” Top 5 song. I wonder whether voters associated the title with the song?
* Go Where You Wanna Go. Huh?

I mean I know the song. I have five or six M&P LPs. But this was never a hit for them, although it WAS a hit, the first hit, actually, for the 5th Dimension. There were better choice for the Mamas & Papas poll: Words of Love (#5), a cover of the Shirelles‘ Dedicated to the One I Love (#2 for three weeks), or the one I would have chosen, I Saw Her Again, another Top Five song.

Not surprisingly, Dreamin‘ was winnin‘, last I checked, followed by Monday, with Go and Creeque trailing badly.

It’s not, however, that I have anything against Go Where You Wanna Go. In fact, when my father, sister Leslie and I used to sing in public in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the song was part of our repetoire. When Leslie showed up at my 50th birthday party, we sang it again that night.

Coincidentally, for Christmas, Leslie gave me a 2001 album by John Phillips called Phillips 66, so named because John would have been 66 had he lived to see the album released. It features a recast version of California Dreamin‘. My favorite song on the disc, though is Me and My Uncle, quite possibly because of the story behind it. When Judy Collins recorded the song, John started getting royalties. John thought a mistake had been made, since he didn’t write the song. Turns out that, in a tequila-fueled frenzy, he DID write the song, Collins tape-recorded it and got it published. John didn’t remember it at all.

Anyway, with Cass Elliot dead over three decades, that leaves Michelle Phillips, probably better known to some from Knots Landing and Beverly Hills, 90210 – but not by me – as the remaining member of group whose sound I enjoyed immensely.
Get to watch football today, I hope. My rooting interests from here out are, in order, the Saints, the Colts, the Bears. This means I root for New Orleans in the Super Bowl, if they beat Chicago. I know it’s become cliche, but the Saints ARE America’s Team – take THAT, Cowboys! Conversely, if the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, I’m pulling for whichever NFC team wins.
Cap Rep is showing Take Me Out, the baseball play about a mixed race player who comes out of the closet. The writer of the story in the local paper makes sure you know that some of the players will be au natural. And they say nothing ever happens in Albany.

Boys in the Band

I had dropped out of the State University College at New Paltz and was working as a janitor in Binghamton City Hall in the spring of 1975 while my sister Leslie was performing in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum” for the Binghamton Civic Theater. After the short run ended, Charlie, who was the lead in “Forum”, decided to direct a play called Boys in the Band, which had played on Broadway in 1968, and was made into a movie in 1970. If you’ve looked at either hyperlink, you’d know that this was a play featuring seven (or eight?) gay men at a dinner party.
Charlie had a casting call, and given my need for greater mental stimulation, I decided to try out. As it turns out there was a specifically black character in the play, and that I was the only black person to try out. (Though Charlie said that I would have been cast regardless.)
We started rehearsals. Some of the cast (at least five) were in fact gay, but at least two of us (a guy named Bill, who played the lead, and myself) were not. So Charlie thought that we all ought to go to a gay bar, as some sort of bonding experience. I did not know there WAS a gay bar in Binghamton, but there it be, a couple blocks from my old high school. It was an interesting experience having a guy (or two) hit on me.
We also went to at least one party at either Charlie’s or cast member Jeffrey’s house, and it was a fascinating mix of the banal (pretty normal conversations about weather and whatnot) with the stereotypical (music by Barbra and Judy).
Bill used to give me a ride home after rehearsals and we’d talk about the experience of working on the play, what surprised us, what preconceived notions we might have had and how they had been challenged.
One of the things that the script required was for me to kiss my “lover” – it was a peck on the lips- played by a guy named Mickey. It was difficult for about 3/4s of the rehearsal time, but finally, I decided, “I am an actor, I can do this.” (Though, in fact, I hadn’t been in a play since 1970, when I was in high school.) In any case, in the last week of rehearsal, I finally managed to do the kiss.
Near the end of the play, Bill had a lengthy monologue which he was having a hard time learning. Charlie got impatient with him during the later rehearsals. My character is “passed out” on the floor for about 10 minutes during this time, and I found that I was learning Bill’s lines. So during the rehearsals (but not during the actual performance), I’d whisper lines to him, which I believe helped.
The play was performed for a couple weekends. Another of the things the script called for was for Jeffrey’s character to take a shower. So, he took off his clothes and feigned taking a shower. I never saw the scene until the play opened (my character had not yet arrived at the party), but it garnered audible gasps each time. (I thought it was a bit gratuitous.)
The review in the newspaper never even reviewed the performances, but instead noted the play as a “statement” of some sort.
My high school friend Carol (not to be confused with my-now wife Carol) later tells me about this dialogue with our mutual HS friend.
Lois: It’s too bad about Roger.
Carol: What ABOUT Roger?
Lois: That he’s gay.
Carol: He’s not gay!
And apparently, the pastor at a church I used to attend thought so, too, as he gave me definite vibes.

That was the first time that I was aware that some people thought I was gay. It was definitely a learning experience in being “the other” from a different perspective.

I remember there were some (presumably) straight actors in that same period who were stereotyped for their orientation in a movie or play. So other performers were wary of taking on such roles. Someone from Martin Sheen’s high school recently told me that Sheen came back some years later, and the faculty adviser said that Sheen could be asked about almost anything…except about that highly rated mid-1970s TV movie called, “That Certain Summer,” in which he played a gay man. I often wonder just how much progress we’ve made since then.

And, coincidentally: For all you baseball fans, watch Carson, Jai, Kyan, Ted, and Thom kick off the start of a fabulous new season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, when the Fab Five visit the World Champion Boston Red Sox. Tuesday (tomorrow) at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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