Friday, February 13, 2009

Across The Pond, Critics Across The Board On Spring Awakening

Across The Pond, Critics Across The Board On Spring Awakening

A funny thing happened on the way to London for Broadway's recently departed Spring Awakening. As presented at the smallish Lyric Hammersmith pearl of a theatre that's a distant dream from the West End, the London mounting includes a cast of age appropriate teens, along with two requisite adults filling all the parental and teacher roles.

Last week, the tuner enjoyed its opening night, or first night as they call it across the pond. Critics ranged from effusive praise to jaundiced criticism.

Answering "Yes," when asking if the "canny production route" by "London's powerful cast" works, Variety's David Benedict offers mostly thumbs up: "Having a cast so close in age to the characters yields enormous dividends. This is an urgent show about the dangers of naivete. Instead of watching more experienced actors shed years of cynicism -- and occasionally add a little too much angst -- this cast glows with innocence. The one downside is that not all of them are experienced enough to take roles created elsewhere and make them fully their own. That's most noticeable in the dance. When they're going full tilt at Bill T. Jones bass-line-hugging choreography, the actors are energized with all the requisite rage and zest. But there are moments when Jones' highly articulate gesturing feels performed rather than embodied."

Calling it a "postmodern collision of styles that works brilliantly," Michael Coveney of The Independent praises in his five star review: "Of course, if you didn't like Hair or Rent, then you won't want to be told that this is the best American protest rock-musical since either of them. But you may respond to the freshness, attack and sheer lyrical beauty of Spring Awakening which knocks out a great roster of indie rock songs against the essential narrative poignancy of Frank Wedekind's 1891 German Expressionist play about adolescent sexual fever and friendship.... It's so simple, yet so strong and assured in the staging. There's more innocence and less mania than there was on Broadway, which suits the beautiful downbeat songs as well as the explosive items."

Concluding that "It's a blast to see this show whatever age you happen to be. But to see it as a teenager must be very heaven," Charles Spencer of The Telegraph awards five out of five stars: "Here it is at last, the answer to one's prayers - a new musical, bursting with ambition and achievement, that doesn't owe its existence to a back-catalogue of pop hits or an old movie.... Michael Mayer directs a superbly compelling production, set in a 19th century gymnasium illuminated by 21st century multi-coloured neon. The choreography of Bill T. Jones conjures the writhing frustration of adolescence and the whole show seems to ache with love and throb with lust."

Deadpanning that "The show gives tongue to adolescent pain, paranoia, self-pity and sexual confusion. It gives a bit less tongue to Wedekind," Benedict Nightingale of The Times airs a note of resignation in his three out of five star critique: "As in the original, the show attacks uncomprehending, unbending, grimly puritan adults: which leaves it looking a bit dated in a Britain where the young tend to be knowing, untamed and powerful. Yet the show's big trick, which is to dress the kids as 1891 German teenagers but give them modern pop-rock songs, gives Michael Mayer's fine, spare production its memorable moments.... (Steven) Sater's lyrics get swamped by (Duncan) Sheik's music, but that does not matter since they are not remarkable and some of the music, notably a trio involving Melchior and his friends' ghosts, is tuneful and touching."

Lamenting that this Spring Awakening "charms and beguiles but also smooths over the rough edges of Wedekind's abrasive, expressionist masterpiece," Michael Billington of The Guardian also limits his stars to three out of five: "At times it covers it in a thick layer of sentimentality, as in the quasi-religious anthem that underscores the hayloft love-making of Melchior and Wendla or the soggily climactic paean to 'a purple summer.' But what the music does more often is neuter the despair and frustration of Wedekind's play by providing an emotional safety valve.... The show is very well staged by Michael Mayer and beautifully performed by its predominantly young British cast.... And Christine Jones's school-gym set is sensationally well lit by Kevin Adams. There is much in the show to enjoy and it doesn't shrink from the original's scenes of teenage masochism and communal ejaculation. But, through the soft blandishments of its score, it turns a harsh and savage play into a piece of feelgood theatre."

Sniping that "I was let down and left there," Nicholas de Jhong of the Evening Standard pans with just two stars: "Duncan Sheik’s American indie and pop rock music, most of it pleasant but quite unmemorable, exudes a sophistication and assurance that runs counter to the mood of these uptight, ignorant teenagers, with their prim Victorian costumes and grotesque styles.... Such songs as 'Totally F***,' 'The Bitch of Living' and 'Touch Me,' which climaxes with a youth enthusiastically masturbating to a fantasy of Desdemona, veer towards the ridiculous. They all betray today’s rebellious, outspoken manners. It is equally unfortunate that Michael Mayer’s production, adorned with blue neon lights and an ugly brickwalled set, leans towards caricature.... Steven Sater’s unlovely lyrics, on the rare occcasions when the singers can be heard above the eloquent seven-strong band, aided by Mayer’s caricature-prone production, succeed in making absurd rather than sad the sexual growing pains of the show’s key figures.... These brilliantly promising young actors deserve better."

Oh yes, and then there are my beloved West End Whingers, whose review is in a league unto itself: "If one were a cynic, one might say that this show took a very cynical approach towards grooming its young audience. This is a world in which one adult in 16 (approximately) has any redeeming features at all; the rest are simply cartoon bullies.... Well, of course, there was no end of moping about and what these children most needed was a good slap. In fact in a couple of scenes the generic adults (two actors play all the adult roles between them) did slap them and Andrew fought hard to suppress a cheer.... Worst of all was an awful lot of quasi rock-posturing by the cast who (like a lot of rock stars) are not great singers, the sound design was muddy and the lyrics (Steven Sater) often (and mercifully) unintelligible."

Nicholas de Jongh and the West End Whingers notwithstanding, it's highly anticipated that this show will receive a West End transfer once it completes its Lyric Hammersmith run on March 14.

UPDATE (2.19.09, 11:25 p.m. EST): has confirmed that Spring Awakening will indeed transfer to the West End. It will begin playing the Novello on March 21 with opening night set for March 26.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 19 February, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 19 February, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dear Readers will please note that I have deleted the comments from a "Gloria26 UK" who was peddling pharmaceuticals. All comments here must correlate to the original story or they will be removed.


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