Thursday, April 14, 2011

REVIEW: Spring Awakening (National Tour)

One of my all-time favorite shows, Spring Awakening, is in the midst of a non-Equity national tour, and I have heard nothing but great things about it.  I somehow managed to miss it when it was up my way, but my buddy Mike was able to see it recently in York, PA.  Here are his thoughts on the show.  Enjoy!

Review of the April 9 matinee performance.  At the Strand Theatre in York, Pennsylvania. 2 hours, 40 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Christopher Wood, Elizabeth Judd, Coby Getzug, Sarah Kleeman, Mark Poppleton, Aliya Bowles, Courtney Markowitz, Devon Stone and  Daniel Plimpton.  Book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik.  Tour choreography by Joann M. Hunter, based upon the original by Bill T. Jones.  Tour direction by Lucy Skilbeck, based upon the original by Michael Mayer.

Grade: A

Although Spring Awakening is one of my favorite shows of the past ten years, I only got to see it twice on Broadway, and I missed the first national tour entirely. So I was very excited to hear that the second national tour would be stopping at the Strand Theatre in York, Pa., just an hour or so from where I live in Maryland. I was excited not only to see the show again, but to check out an theater and a town that I'd never really visited, despite its proximity to home. Happily, the day held nothing but pleasant surprises across the board.

TOP: The girls
BOTTOM: The boys

Except for two aspects of this excellent touring production, your ears and eyes would not be able to tell that this was not a sit-down Broadway production somehow transported to York. The cast, orchestra, staging, and design were all fully realized and in tip-top shape. As for those two differences, one is rather minor and understandable: a few design elements were simplified for this touring production. At the end of Act I, for instance, the platform holding Wendla and Melchior doesn't rise as it did on Broadway. Suffice it to say that this didn't affect my enjoyment one iota, and I can see why they wouldn't want to carry around and install the necessary equipment for a one- or two-day gig. (Likewise, there was no trap door and under-stage space, as there was on Broadway, but this was even less of a problem.) I'll get to the second and more substantial difference between the productions in a moment.

Christopher Wood (center) as Melchior with
Sarah Kleeman and Mark Poppleton as the Adults

I saw the original cast of Spring Awakening twice on Broadway, and I'm glad to report that the members of this touring cast equaled and, in two cases, slightly bettered their Broadway counterparts. One of those two was Christopher Wood, who brought warmth and "realness" to the central character of Melchior. His crucial relationships with Wendla and with Moritz were clear and genuine, and his singing was up to the challenges of this very diverse score.

Elizabeth Judd as Wendla and Coby Getzug as Moritz also did fine work. Judd is an angelic singer, and her acting was good, too, although I found some of her verbal affectations to be a little distracting during her dialog scenes. Getzug has the most difficult songs of the evening, and he nailed them; his performance was appropriately both manic and sympathetic. His performance came the closest to copying the Broadway original (John Gallagher Jr.), but that's not a bad achievement in itself.

Coby Getzug, Christopher Wood, Elizabeth Judd

As for the terrific supporting cast, two actors deserve special mention. Aliya Bowles, as Martha, gave a definitive performance of "The Dark I Know Well," one of the show's most affecting songs. I always admire an actor who can create a nuanced character in one short scene, and that's what Bowles did here. Even more impressive was Courtney Markowitz in the crucial but smallish role of Ilse - the other performer who was even better than her Broadway predecessor. A beautiful young actress, Markowitz's performance captured the spirit of a girl who has been through a lot, whose body is experienced but whose soul is guiltless. In the tightly constrained world of Spring Awakening, the character of Ilse stands out, and so does Markowitz's performance.

Moritz doesn't do sadness

As for the creative team, tour director Lucy Skilbeck did a marvelous job re-creating Michael Mayer's Broadway staging. The lighting and set design (with some minor simplifications, as noted above) were also very close to the Broadway original - and, frankly, I don't know how they manage to set up and dismantle so much stuff in so little time for a two-performance run, so kudos to the touring crew. Unfortunately, the sound was not so good at the performance I saw, and that's the only really substantial way in which this production suffered in comparison to Broadway. I understand that it must be a challenge to quickly adapt a sound system to a cavernous old theatre, but it did impinge on my enjoyment of parts of the show, so I'd be remiss in not mentioning it.

I'd be equally remiss in not mentioning the orchestra, which did a beautiful job with this score. This tour uses the same instrumentation as on Broadway, with a rock ensemble and three-piece string section. I've always found Spring Awakening's orchestrations to be especially detailed and effective, so this aspect is particularly important to me. The touring orchestra played the heck out of it, and I also have to say that they were the best-looking theatre orchestra I've ever seen.

The Spring Awakening Company

Finally, and perhaps a little off-topic, I found the Strand Theater to be a lovely place to see a show (sound problems aside). The theater itself is gorgeous and comfortable, and the staff is friendly almost to excess. It's situated in downtown York, which is a charming old-time Main Street type of area. There's a bustling city market directly next to the theater, with many food and shopping options (I didn't eat there this time, but next time I will, because it all looked delicious). So if you're a theater person and you're in the mid-Atlantic area, don't hesitate to go see a show at the Strand - especially if it's a modern classic presented as expertly as this production of Spring Awakening.

(Photos by Andy Snow)

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