Teenage wasteland

P.R. FLEX | Disenfranchised Puerto Ricans Anita (Michelle Aravena) and Bernardo (German Santiago) burn the floor in a re-imagined revival of ‘West Side Story.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

Hormonal youth meet fatal consequences in ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Awakening’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There aren’t many musicals that are about things. Andrew Lloyd Webber, with his bombastic shows concerning felines and toy trains, may have lowered the bar, but the “serious” musical has always been an uphill battle. Even a show like Hairspray, which touches on racism, is more concerned with a punchy ‘60s-pop sound than social change.

Two musicals that break the mold are West Side Story and Spring Awakening. There’s very little hope in either one. But the message of teenagers crazed by hormones, and the tragedy that results, have made them classics, even coming 50 years apart. Seldom has the reality of adolescence been more acutely wrought.

The new production of West Side, at the State Fair courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals, was re-imagined by the show’s original writer, Arthur Laurents, with the addition of Spanish dialogue and lyrics (from Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks, as well as a timely design: Although a product of the ‘50s — especially evident in Leonard Bernstein’s still-relevant jazz score and dialogue resplendent with daddios talk of hoodlums — this version could just as easily take place today. The Jets, usually so easy to mock for their balletic street fighting, are by-and-large beefier here, more threatening. They may plie like Nureyev, but you sense they’d beat the living crap out of you for making fun of ‘em.

This West Side also has something sorely lacking in almost every prior production: A Tony with true sex appeal. You believe the spark between him (Ross Lekites) and Maria (Evy Ortiz, whose soprano is astonishing) as they Romeo-and-Juliet it on the balc… er, fire escape. Young love onstage usually seems hokey; here, it feels primal.

There’s power in this doomed romance, from the haunting, bloody finales of both Act 1 and 2 to the near rape of Anita (Michelle Aravena) that elevates it — not just to the realm of tragedy, but to the scope of a true American opera.

At least, that’s the sensibility conveyed by this production, the best yet in DSM’s 2011 season. West Side Story hasn’t felt so fresh in ages, abounding with energy (although some of the dancers aren’t in perfect step) and a new air of sexual ambiguity (especially with tomboy Jet wannabe Anybodys and some gang members that seem a little too chummy). This has never been a feel-good musical, but its dark outlook feels earned this time.

THE BITCH OF LIVING | Sexually repressed teens give motion to their libidos with John de los Santos’ choreography in WaterTower’s production of ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Photo courtesy Mark Oristano)

We live in a state whose governor preaches abstinence-only sex education while the teen pregnancy rate is among the highest in the nation. If that kind of dunderheadedness infuriates you, you’re in for a frustrating two hours with Spring Awakening. Based on a German play written more than a century ago, this rock musical explodes with paternalistic hypocrisy, as parents and teachers scrupulously avoid their responsibilities toward children in order to preserve some mythical idea of “proper” society. Teenaged girls wanna know where babies come from and are given a non-cock-not-bull story about storks — is it any wonder they wind up pregnant and on Jerry Springer?

From the first haunting strains of Duncan Sheik’s plaintive rock score, Spring Awakening oozes sex. And not just pure, puppy-love romantic sex. These kids fantasize about their tutors and their classmates; they jerk off to poetry; they explore sado-masochism and fetishes and drug use. Welcome to the real world of teenhood, Gov. Perry.

WaterTower Theatre is mounting the first local production, and if you haven’t seen it, do. The show itself is arrestingly modern, even though set generations ago, and the music and lyrics (by Steven Stater) are wonderful both for their abstract imagery and the immediacy of the emotions.

But there’s also something slightly off. Maybe it’s the sound, which was spotty on opening night, but it feels more like the singers themselves. Mind you, the cast — made up largely of young comparative newcomers — all sing well, but you want them to do more: You want them to get loose.

Director Terry Martin gives them the opportunity, with onstage masturbation, same-sex kissing and dark discussions of sex sure to make a few blue-hairs squirm. John de los Santos’ stylized choreography gives them a lot to do, bringing a sense of motion to the internality of libidos gone mad, but they need to shout a little. It’s impossible to be too loud doing Spring Awakening — it is a rock musical, after all. With songs titled the likes of “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” and “Totally Fucked,” this stage is no place to play it safe.

Among the cast, Adam Garst as the tortured Moritz is a standout, as is Kayla Carlyle as the free-spirited Ilse, but each of them embodies an aspect of adolescence that rings true. Spring Awakening resonates not because it feels so remote, but because it lives inside the mind of everyone who recalls first lust.

—  John Wright

‘Gypsy’ in her soul

B’way legend and gay icon Patti LuPone brings her powerful pipes to Dallas

concerts-1ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

You might not have seen her name above the title on a movie or welcomed her every week into your house via the boob tube, but when it comes to the stage, there are few contemporary performers who rival Patti LuPone.

“I’m not a movie actress — I think I’m a hard sell in the movies,” LuPone says matter-of-factly. (She is, however, about to shoot a film in New Orleans, playing  J-Lo’s mom.) While the Juilliard-trained actress has met her greatest success in musical theater, it’s her acting chops that have transformed songs like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from Evita — her first Tony Award) and “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy — her second Tony). The latter was a career highlight: The most ferocious role for a woman ever written for an American musical. Two years after it closed, she’s still happy to talk about it.

“It was great,” she beams. “Arthur [Laurents, the director and writer] assembled a spectacular cast — we really were a triumvirate. I don’t think you can act alone. You need partners on stage.”

That the production took place “was really done as a tribute to Arthur’s partner of 50 years, Tom Hatcher,: she says. “Tom had just died, and he’s the one who told Arthur to do West Side Story and Gypsy. Arthur agreed to do it basically to keep him alive. He wanted it to be different than the last one and really have an acted show.”

Although the entire principal cast won Tonys, Laurents did not.  “How could the director not win!” LuPone says, voice filling with outrage. You sense it’s such emotional readiness that has made her a Broadway icon.

LuPone brings that legendary power to the stage of the Meyerson this week, with what she calls a “piano and voice only” concert (no orchestra), titled Gypsy in My Soul. “It’s a collection of songs including some showtunes,” she says.

When an actress so identified with certain composers, especially Stephen Sondheim, performs in concert, she can run the risk of being compelled to perform songs that no longer interest her. That’s simply not the case with LuPone.

“Songs never become old hat to me, “ she says categorically. “Because audiences want to hear one, so I do one — not even because I have to; I want to. If they are really good songs you want to sing them.”

LuPone has, in one venue or another, run through almost the entire Sondheim repertoire: Mama Rose, Passion, Company, Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd (another Tony nomination — “I actually got rotator cuff problems from carrying around that tuba”). Really, only two have eluded her.

“I wanted to play Desiree [in the revival of A Little Night Music, which closed earlier this year on Broadway]. I contacted Trevor [Nunn, the director], who didn’t contact me back,” she says, with a sting. “Really the last Sondheim role for me is the Witch in Into the Woods, which I was originally offered! After it left San Diego they offered it to me; I said I d like to play Cinderella, so I came in and auditioned for that. Then they said, ‘We still want you to play the Witch.’ Then negotiations fell apart.”

Her resume is littered with shows — some huge hits, some personal triumphs.

“I loved Women on the Verge,” she says of her last Broadway venture, which closed quickly last year (though not before landing her a sixth Tony nom). “I think there’s a lot of creativity [on Broadway] now, but I’m sick and tired of the spectacles. My biggest complaint is the sound level: I’d rather be brought to the stage than pushed back in my seat.”

And she’s always looking ahead. “Mandy [Patinkin] and I are coming to Broadway for nine weeks [soon], then we will go out on the road both together and separately. Then there’s stuff happening that I can’t say because I’m not supposed to,” she teases.

You might expect she’d find a pace more suitable for a 62-year-old, but LuPone denies that the demands of eight shows a week wear her out.

“I have Italian peasant energy,” he says. “Even at my age, there is this abundance of energy, especially songs that are physically demanding. I am exhilarated by them.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas