Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Lovely Night...

Last night, I went to see the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella" at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

I have to admit that I had fairly low expectations for a number of reasons.
This version of Cinderella is a musical with an interesting history. It was written as a television musical event. It was literally written to be preformed live on television in 1957 with Julie Andrews (at her most luminous) as the star attraction. Since then it has been remade for television twice, and made the leap to the stage. This is all very unusual for a musical, and it sits in a category entirely its own.
The original television version of Cinderella clocked in at a crisp 90 minutes. To fill it out, subsequent versions added in songs from lesser known Rodgers and Heart musicals. While I don't usually love the act of changing shows 50 years later, the added songs help make the show much richer and full of depth. Whats more, the added songs were carefully selected and add to the feeling and shape of the show.

While I try to go into the theatre with an open mind, that is not always possible. I tend to look at shows like Cinderella as light weights. While I like Rodgers and Hammerstein enough, I don't like their candy coated musicals. I enjoy South Pacific for its difficult subject matter and social commentary. I applaud the stage version of the Sound of Music for its surprisingly complex look into human goodness, evil, and shades of gray. I'm not a huge fan of Oklahoma, I think Carousel is bizarre, and I didn't think that Cinderella held much of interest for me. RENT, Les Miserables, and Spring Awakenings rank among my favorite musicals. There are dramatic, sometimes gritty, and varying levels of tragic. Cinderella is none of these things. I expected this production of Cinderella to be enjoyable and forgettable.

However, I'm more than willing to admit that I seriously undersold Cinderella. it was one of the most enjoyable few hours I've recently spent in a theatre. Cinderella embraces the story we are all familiar with, but builds it in delightfully complex ways.

Cinderella's prince Charming not only has a name, Christopher, he has 10 middle names listed gleefully in song. But beyond that he is a young man with loving parents who are indeed anxious to see him married, but willing to let him do it for love. Our prince and our Cinderella share a sense of life missing something, expressed by both in the song "The Sweetest Sounds" (which apparently was a 1997 addition the show). They share a melancholy feeling, singing, "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear, are still inside my head, the kindest words I'll ever know, are waiting to be said." They sing this together, unaware of the other, watching a happy couple do a sweet waltz in the middle of a crowded market. For this Cinderella and her prince, when they do meet, this is not a simple love at first sight. They are not children overcome by each others beauty, but two people finding someone looking for the same thing they are missing.

Just like her prince, this Cinderella shows surprising depth. Unlike Disney's Cinderella, this Cinderella has a sense of agency. She is not waiting on a fairy godmother, but instead is willing to mend her dead mothers ball gown, and hitch a ride to the ball. Then and only then does the her fairy godmother turns the pumpkin to a coach, and creates a sparkling gold dress.

In the Disney cartoon, the fairy godmother demands that Cinderella return at midnight, to avoid being caught in rags. Here, when Cinderella returns home in her scullery maid dress, her fairy godmother put her on the hook. If the prince loves her in a gold dress, why would he not love her as a scullery maid? Finally, a feminist in a fairy tale! This is a much better message to send little girls in a world that is increasingly obsessed with physical beauty. Love is love, and circumstances should not matter as much as what is in your heart.

While I don't usually like spectacle for spectacles sake, this productions gorgeous costumes, rich set pieces and occasional pyrotechnics (!) created a world of magic, and an enchanted kingdom. In fact, I'm still not sure how they pulled off the seemingly instantaneous the change into Cinderella's ballgown without using real magic. As soon as I saw this, I wanted to know how it worked, but my friend was happy with the magic of it all.

This production was really something special. It was sweet, achingly romantic, with a message emphasizing goodness and kindness over beauty, and wrapped up in a few shiny gold ribbons. Songs I previously thought were overly simple, came off as sweetly poignant. The whole thing was injected with some comedy in the form of some discretely cross-dressing stepsisters and a fairy godmother seemingly plucked out of a production of "Wicked."

Possibly most importantly, the whole thing was incredibly kid friendly. I walked out of the theatre wondering if I knew anyone who needed to take their kids to go see it. Or have me take their kids!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spring Awakening Revisited

While I'm not sure what the future of this blog is, I have a play to review! Last night I went to see the Broadway tour of "Spring Awakening." I saw Spring Awakening when I lived in DC, and was regularly reviewing plays for this blog. So I came here looking to see what I had to say about Spring Awakening a year and a half ago, and was disappointed to see I had not written about it. So while it would have been great to see what I thought then and now, I can only offer up my thoughts about last night, possibly stacked up against my memories of the last performance.

Spring Awakening is a really interesting musical. Its a rock musical about teenagers in the 1800's Germany. Its lively and racy, poignant and rowdy, with a spirited sense of humor. The music is catchy and stays with you. Its really unlike a typical musical. The musical I would compare it to most in spirit is RENT, but even that is only sort of in spirit. I haven't seen as many new musicals as I would like, and Spring Awakening premiered in 2006. However, Spring Awakening is really something special.

The subject matter is not easy, it deals with a number of issues that wouldn't seem out of place on any teen drama on TV today. And this my be one of the most appealing things about Spring Awakening, the themes are timeless. Even though the characters of the show are living in 1800's Germany their problems are not outdated, but sometimes almost painfully timely.

The show has a number of well formed teenage characters. Interestingly, the adult characters are all played by the same two characters. The main characters are Wendla, a sheltered young girl, Melchior, a young man at odds with stifling smallness of his world, and Moritz, who is at in crisis from essentially the first scene. The play centers around these three young people and their hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks.

All three of these actors were very good in this touring cast. The actor who plays Melchior really has to carry the show, and the young actor here was more than up to the challenge. It's not an easy role, he has a lot of music to sing and his acting has to cover a lot of emotional range. I would say that the show really rests on Melchiors shoulders. So I was happy to find that he had a really powerful, pleasant voice, and a lot of acting range.

Both touring productions of Spring Awakening I've seen were costumed identically, and staged and choreographed very similarly. While both were touring cast the production I saw at the Kennedy Center was there for several weeks, while this was the single night in Eugene of the tour. This translates into this set being simpler. The first touring set has a platform that raised up into the air at a crucial point in the story. This one simply did not. I don't think that this raising platform was necessary, but very effective. However, the show does not suffer for the lack of fancy moving set pieces.

These identical productions are interesting. I'm not sure how common it is in the theatre world, but both productions were almost identical, in terms of staging and choreography. I wonder if this homogeneity of production makes theatre more like film? The same show over and over with different actors going through the motions? I'm not sure how I feel about this. I enjoyed it both times. However I think one of the exciting things about theatre is the differences. Its wonderful to get to see the same material imagined different ways, breathing new life into the same production. Yet, what happens on stage for Spring Awakening clearly works, so why mess with a good thing? This way more and more people get to see the production with the original intent.

Spring Awakening is presented in one of my favorite ways: very presentationally. The set is evocative of things, rather than realistic. The characters all sing with hand held mics, although I suspect they are wearing body mics at all. The choreography is very stylized. One important scene takes place with two characters standing downstage, about ten feet apart, both singing out instead of to each other. One of my favorite songs, charmingly called "Totally F*cked" is a showpiece of some of the most exuberant, stylized dancing (and singing) I've ever seen on stage. This song got a round of applause so long it bordered on ridiculous.

Sometimes I end up being a cheerleader of sorts for musicals. I love them. I know a lot of people don't. They find people randomly breaking into song cheesy and schmaltzy. Or alternately, people think that musicals are not are powerful and theatrical as straight plays (anything without music). However, just as there is a huge variety in the strength and power of straight plays, musicals can be many different things. I think that Spring Awakening could be a strong play without the music. I think it might turn into something like "The History Boys," witty and poignant and very focused on the words. But it does have music. The songs in Spring Awakening are never a crutch, instead the music helps the characters express those feelings that are somehow inexplicable just through words. Spring Awakening is an amazing mixture of sauciness and sadness. It contains one of the most shocking sex scenes I've ever seen on stage, and I've seen some surprising things. Yet the show also has a number of songs that never fail to make me cry. And not because the show is manipulative, but because its full of such honest, real emotion. And this is really the beauty of Spring Awakening.