Seen on Broadway: The fall’s most eagerly awaited musicals were two exports from off-Broadway, Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening. I wrote about Grey Gardens in the spring; outside of a welcome augmentation of Wendall K. Harrington’s projections (more cats!), the design seemed largely unchanged. Spring Awakening eluded me, but the Atlantic Theater Company production, now at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, has undergone some text and music revision. Thankfully, it, too, has not sacrificed its design for Broadway, as both shows use their physical production to make powerful thematic statements, Grey Gardens by putting its environment onstage and Spring Awakening by stripping it away.
Some audience members are seated on either end of the stage, in risers. Mixed among them are the show’s young performers. Right away there is a feeling of cloistered community, reinforced by the downstage steps built over the orchestra pit. The show adapts Franz Wedekind’s scandalous 1891 play of sexual repression and expression, and the period schoolroom uniforms the teens wear are as constrained as the book scenes, which find them brushing up against adult morality and hypocrisy. But the costumes have been designed to accommodate hand mics, which the kids whip out as soon as they start to sing their private, innermost thoughts about sex, masturbation, and homosexuality—in a completely contemporary rock-and-roll way, with song titles and lyrics that will rule out a few numbers for Tony Awards broadcasting. The numbers (music by Grammy-nominated rocker Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater) set off explosions of illumination, in units concealed in the brick-faced set, but these looks stand down quickly when the real world reasserts itself.
The first act is a little like a musical Splendor in the Grass, reset in 19th century Germany, as the freest-thinking student, Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), pursues the questioning Wendla (Lea Michele), an eventual union whose tragic consequences reverberate in Act II. As strong as the first act is the second truly deepens the production, in part because the two adults (Broadway veterans Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook in multiple roles) emerge from caricature—we see how everyone is affected by the ignorance of this society, and the toll keeping up appearances takes on its most sensitive members, like student radical Melchior (Jonathan Groff). The design itself becomes inexorable, the eruptions of joy signified by the lighting fading to a blue-black twilight, then yielding to a chilling fog that blankets a graveyard. There is, at the end, a final, yearning hope, the last confluence of excellent writing, acting, choreography (Bill T. Jones), and direction (by Michael Mayer) with the outstanding staging.
Everyone is working at their highest level here. The set that there is, by Christine Jones, has a centerstage element that functions as the hayloft, where the first act seduction takes place, to the graveyard, and is further decorated with period portraits. Brian Ronan’s sound design is immaculate; not a lyric is lost, even when the music is at its most alt-rock tumultuous. Susan Hilferty’s costumes, as noted, effortlessly bridge the past and present. About Kevin Adams’ lighting, with its arresting mix of hanging bulbs, shafts of light, and arrays of neon tubing in the set and around the theater—there are almost no words, except to say that no one does this kind of work better than this LD, who has continually impressed me since I saw the equally evocative Hedwig and the Angry Inch. [Hudson Scenic supplied the scenery and automation, Hudson Sound and Light the lighting and Masque Sound the audio.] This is bravura showmanship, subtle and riveting, and the vibrant, sexy, impassioned, and touching Spring Awakening is inconceivable without it.
Top 10 Tribute List to High Fidelity, the Brooklyn-set musical of the Britain-set novel and Chicago-set film, which after 14 performances reached the end of the line at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on Sunday.
1) The male lead, Will Chase, seemed to go AWOL the second the closing was announced, understandable given that his last show, the horrid Lennon, was another quick fade. His understudy, Jon Patrick Walker, gave an admirable performance as Rob, the indie record store owner who is forced to put his compulsive list-making aside when his girlfriend, Laura (Jenn Colella) leaves him.
2) Under Walter Bobbie’s direction, with dance steps provided by choreographer Christopher Gattelli, the entire cast did spirited, high-energy work, maybe more than was required for a show about aimless young slackers.
3) Given the constant references to favorite tunes this could have been a new twist on the jukebox musical format, but there were some listenable songs in Tom Kitt and Amanda Green’s original score. However, they weren’t listed in the Playbill, a sure sign that all was not well as numbers came and went before opening.
4) Set in stone was Anna Louizos’ record-store set, which, via Show Motion automation, morphed into bedrooms and, toward the end, the brick-faced exterior of a funeral home. But I think it was too complex and show-offy—a simpler staging, the record store plus a few on-and-off vignettes, would have worked equally well and kept the budget under a reported $10 million.
5) No one does flash-and-fun theatrical lighting like Ken Billington.
6) The costumes looked as if they came from the actors’ closets. Then again that’s what designer Theresa Squire wanted you to think.
7) Acme Sound Partners rocked the house.
8) A shout-out to Hudson Scenic (scenery), PRG (lighting), and Sound Associates (sound).
9) Like the Tower Records chain, it deserved a longer life, and not to be the fastest-closing Broadway musical since 1992.
10) It was a whole lot better than the third and final show in our roundup.
That would be The Apple Tree, which is suffering from decayed roots. A modest, three-fable revue from the creators of Fiddler on the Roof that earned its star, Barbara Harris, a Tony Award in 1966, the show has returned, via a Roundabout Theatre Company revival at Studio 54. Little more than a mildly cute diversion, it will likely be another 40 years until anyone attempts it again, if at all. The new star, Kristin Chenoweth, is broad and strenuous in her multiple roles, as Eve to Brian d’Arcy James’ put-upon Adam in the first, Mark Twain-derived vignette, as a ditzily conniving princess weighing “The Lady or The Tiger?” for her imprisoned lover in the second, and as a mousy chimneysweep who gets her Cinderella wish to become a glamorous movie star in the third, adapted from a Jules Feiffer piece. Chenoweth is a bundle of comic energy and explosive high notes, but the frail material and terribly lackluster production are not a proper outlet for her charms. Mark Kudisch adds a touch of class to the proceedings as the Snake in the garden in the Adam and Eve segment and as the velvet-voiced narrator of the other two.
The Apple Tree was given a well-received concert staging at Encores!, which led to this show. But the director, Gary Griffin, the party responsible for the garishly overstuffed The Color Purple, really skimped this time, as if in atonement. This is neither a concert performance nor a fully realized production, but some vague and unsatisfying middle ground. John Lee Beatty is credited but surely a stagehand or two was responsible the ladders and tinsel curtains that constitute most of the barren and stricken set; a master of naturalism, Beatty has little feeling for flights of fancy, and to judge from what I saw, little money, either. Donald Holder’s furiously colorful lighting operates in a void. The only attractive segment, “The Lady or The Tiger?” (pictured) is given a real lift from Jess Goldstein’s Barbie doll-like costuming (fresh from Martin Short’s show, he understands revue staging) and some funny Dan Moses Schreier sound effects—the biggest laugh in the production comes from the rewind sound that plays when an alternate fate for one character is enacted. [Hudson Scenic, PRG, and Sound Associates get the respective credit for scenery, lighting, and sound.] Would that the clock be able to turn back to reconceive, or simply abort, this awkward revival. —Robert Cashill