Monday, September 8, 2008

Sunday In The Dark With George

Some people seek solace in church.  I've always looked to darkened theaters, cinemas and concert halls as places for inspiration.  These are the venues in which I can let my mind roam free, open myself up to new ideas and marvel at the magic of the creative arts (as opposed to the simplemindedness of creationism).  While others focus on the cross or the northern star, I have always looked to that wily slave, Pseudolus, for a sense of direction.  To quote his opening lines in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum:
"Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple and we are here to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy. Tonight, I am pleased to announce a comedy. We shall employ every device we know in our desire to divert you."
The claim that "...we shall employ every device we know" is especially relevant to the two performances I attended on Sunday.  In the afternoon, I was fortunate enough to catch a workshop performance of Lunatique Fantastique's newest production:

Since Chicken Stock is still being workshopped, the producers at The Marsh have requested that the press not review the performance. Therefore, I will simply quote the copy which appears on postcards and posters advertising this production.
"Chicken Stock is the uncanny story of avian influenza as seen through the eyes of domesticated birds and migratory water fowl. Using newspaper, plastic bags, and plastic forks, the animators of Lunatique Fantastique bring the Henpeck and Mallard family to amazing life as they encounter the deadly flu."
Chicken Stock offers audiences an experience that has to be seen to be believed.  As promised, I will not review the performance I saw.  I will only tell you that the remaining two performances are on September 13 and 14 at 1:00 p.m. To order tickets, call The Marsh's toll-free ticket hotline at 800-838-3006.  I guarantee you will emerge from the theater with a new appreciation for plastic utensils.

That evening I attended the San Francisco premiere of Spring Awakening, the Tony-award winning musical with book and lyrics by Steven Slater and music by Duncan Sheik.  While their show has been showered with accolades, the contributions of two creative artists whose work is a key to the production's success has often been tragically overlooked.

Let's start with the production's sound designer, Brian Ronan.  All too often touring shows (particularly those which play at the Orpheum) spike the amplification to a point which tramples the auditory pain threshold.  To my amazement and delight, Ronan's sound design for Spring Awakening is loud enough to allow the audience to hear everything while showing enough restraint to allow the music's lyricism to shine through without being drowned out by noise. Singers' voices are enhanced, not just amplified.   Duncan Sheik's orchestrations shine through, rather than being equalized.  This is a rare achievement in letting sound design support rather than overwhelm a production.

Next, all rise and salute lighting designer Kevin Adams, who justifiably received a Tony Award for his contribution to Spring Awakening.  In nearly 50 years of attending theater and opera, I cannot think of another production whose lighting design made me fall in love with it.  What Adams has achieved in terms of using lighting creatively to support and enhance dramatic moments throughout the production is quite breathtaking.  Some of his most striking effects are achieved with a rare starkness and neonic simplicity; others support rapid changes in mood, scene, and intensity.  It's worth seeing this production just to experience the artistic vision of a lighting designer who does not merely attempt to highlight traffic patterns onstage, but uses lighting as an art form unto itself.

Now let's talk about the show.  As I watched Spring Awakening unfold on the stage of the Curran Theater, I was thrilled at how acutely it captured the confused questioning, conflicted emotions and agonized rage of teenagers whose hormones are driving them wild. 

Blake Bashoff as Moritz (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Billed as "brutally honest," Spring Awakening pulls no punches in confronting such painful issues as teen suicide and teenage pregnancy.  The evening begins with an adolescent girl begging her mother to explain the facts of life but failing to get any real information from her prudish parent.  Act I ends (and Act II begins) with the young girl getting knocked up in full view of the audience.  While staged with a beautiful sense of youthful ardor and passion, I couldn't help wondering how many Bristol Palins need to see Spring Awakening in order to push back against their parents' horribly misguided and tragically irresponsible advice to pursue a path of abstinence until marriage.

Christy Altomare as Wendla and Kyle Riabko as Melchior (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

I particularly like Duncan Sheik's music, which often climaxes in different ways than one expects to hear in the standard literature of Broadway musicals.  Steven Sater's lyrics to songs like "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," and "Totally Fucked" are not only angry and honest, but poignant and deeply felt.

The cast of Spring Awakening (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

The young and extremely likeable cast of the national touring company features Blake Bashoff as the suicidal Moritz, Kyle Riabko as his close friend, Melchior, and Christy Altomare as his girlfriend Wendla.  Angela Reed takes on multiple adult female roles, countered by Henry Stram's multiple adult men.  Other members of this exceptionally strong ensemble include Sarah Hunt (Martha), Steffi D (Ilse), Anthony Lee Median (Otto), Andy Mientus (Hanschen), Matt Shingledecker (Georg) and Ben Moss (Ernst).

However, it is the exuberant choreography by Bill T. Jones and stunning direction by Michael Mayer that really shape the show and meticulously use Christine Jones' unit set to maximum impact.  The national touring company of Spring Awakening did much more than live up to the show's hype.   Judging by the looks on their faces, I think the cast even surprised themselves when, after much stomping and clapping, they were called back onstage for an extra curtain call.

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