Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.
Puberty’s tough, yo! Photo of Blake Bashoff by Joan Marcus.
Here at Drama Club, we generally consider Mirvish shows to be outside our purview (although that certainly doesn’t stop them popping up elsewhere on Torontoist). But when we heard that the much ballyhooed Broadway darling Spring Awakening was coming to the Canon Theatre, we couldn’t help feeling…intrigued. Maybe it was our geeky theatre-school memories of the scandalous Wedekind play the new musical is based on. More likely, it was Lucille Bluth singing “Mama Who Bore Me” on 90210. Regardless, it was with a healthy amount of curiosity (and perhaps a soupçon of dread) that we went to the theatre on opening night.
After the fold, what we thought about Spring Awakening, plus Another Home Invasion at Tarragon, and more theatre news and reviews.
Mama Who Bored Me
“Teen angst makes me so mad, I gotta jump!” Photo by Paul Kolnik.
At its best, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s wildly popular Spring Awakening will make a fantastic stepping stone for wayward musical theatre kids. Bridge the gap between High School Musical and Hedwig; Rent and Rocky Horror. Point artistic teens in the right direction. At its worst, it’s a sloppy, whitewashed version of a classic work of theatre with all the subtlety of a Baz Luhrmann movie.
This is a difficult show to write a review of, or at least a non-gushing one. For one thing, there’s barely a point. It’s the talk of the town; it swept the Tonys; it’s inspired a legion of Renthead-esque followers calling themselves “The Guilty Ones,” after one of the show’s moodier numbers. People will see the show, and people (especially teenage ones) will like it. It’s got enthusiastic and talented young actors (including Canadian Idol’s Steffi D) giving brave performances, it’s got a couple of totally hummable pop songs, it’s got swearing(!), sex(!), and teen angst(!!). Plus, you can sit on the stage! And those things probably add up to enough that most people will allow themselves not to notice what a mess this show is.
Smart and hunky Melchior is probably the only kid in his neighbourhood (the play is set in “a provincial German town in the 1890s”) with a firm grasp on what, exactly, sex is. So when his best friend, socially awkward slacker Moritz, starts having wet dreams, Melchior writes him an essay explaining all about the birds and the bees. Meanwhile, Melchie’s would-be sweetheart Wendla’s mother refuses to tell her daughter where babies come from, and if Sarah Palin’s parenting skills have taught us anythng, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise where that kind of sex ed is going to eventually lead. Of the remaining kids that make up the cast, the boys are all perverts, and the girls are all victims, but none of them are very developed beyond that. In fact, several are less developed than they are in the Wedekind play. The new Spring Awakening keeps the characters, the setting, and the plot of the old one more or less intact, and then inserts a bunch of pop songs with contemporary slang in them to spice things up. Fair enough. But it also tones things down. A lot. Goodbye, black comedy; hello, After School Special. Most notably, the show’s central incident is a loving, exploring-our-bodies, first-time sexual encounter between Melchior and Wendla. In the Wedekind, it’s a rape. Kind of brings a different meaning to the tag line “you never forget your first time.” Also disappointing is the queer subplot between two minor characters, which is basically played as a creepy joke, entirely subordinate to the straight romance, and actually manages to be less progressive than the version written in a play now well over a hundred years old.
Even if you completely forget that Wedekind’s play ever existed and pretend Spring is an entirely new work, there are still problems. Aside from a few lovely moments of choreography and design flash, too much of the show features people in lines holding microphones, and is boring to look at. This problem isn’t helped by the all-over-the-place set design which manages to take a chalkboard, some neon light, and a bunch of paintings, and make them look like absolutely nothing in particular. Beyond creating bland visuals, this lack of focus actually makes parts of the show confusing to follow. When the character Ilse wanders onstage in the middle of a song, it’s completely unclear as to who she is and where she came from. Also, while the songs are generally well-orchestrated and pleasant-sounding, it helps if you don’t listen too hard to the lyrics. “We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you,” the chorus sings, irony-free, in one ditty.
It’s nice to see young folks getting so excited about a piece of theatre, especially one that has roots in such an important work of literature, but at the end of the day, this new Spring Awakening feels about as rebellious as a Jonas Brothers music video, and maybe slightly less relevant.
On Stage This WeekAnd Up They Flew is the final show by notable local company Theatre Columbus, and describes itself as “Gosford Park meets the Marx Brothers.” It plays at the Berkeley until April 4.
Another Home Invasion continues its run in Tarragon’s Extra Space. It’s written by Joan MacLeod, who you might remember as the author of the fabulous one-woman show The Shape of a Girl, which explored the scary creatures some teenage girls are able to become. Her new show is another one-hander, but this time, she reaches to the other end of adulthood and examines the life and routine of an elderly woman, played by the terrific Nicola Lipman. Her character isn’t too far a cry from the one she played in December Man last year, but it’s nice to see her in a show that’s not incredibly depressing. MacLeod’s script is funny, touching, and rings true, and Richard Rose’s direction makes for a very simple and elegant execution. Younger crowds may find this play less relatable than MacLeod’s earlier work, and there are one or two moments when the action feels a bit slow, but if you’re willing to give it a listen, she really does have a beautiful little story to tell. It plays until April 19.
CanStage‘s much-touted “Berkeley Street Project” continues with Blackbird, a Studio 180 co-production. Studio 180 had a huge hit a year ago with Stuff Happens, and this show has had successful runs in Edinburgh, London, and New York. It runs until April 4.
Missing continues at Factory. This story of a woman who has disappeared and the detective who tries to find her is directed by the talented David Ferry. It runs until April 5.
Kristen Thomson’s The Patient Hour continues at Tarragon. As usual, Thomson’s characters are thrillingly real and often hilarious, especially as performed by the stellar cast. The story, about a pair of siblings sitting vigil at their mother’s hospital bed, makes a couple of strange twists and turns about three-quarters in that perhaps distract from the simple beauty of the earlier part of the play, but all in all, it’s a very engaging night of theatre. It plays until March 29.
CanStage’s production of beloved one-woman show Shirley Valentine opens tomorrow night at the Bluma. This time, Nicola Cavendish plays the bored British housewife who lets her imagination run away from her on a vacation in Greece. (There is also a charming film version with Tom Conti and a cameo by Joanna Lumley.) It plays until April 18.