Hormonal youth meet fatal consequences in ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Awakening’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
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.
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.