Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
March 21, 2014
Oh, the naiveté of youth. Sometimes it can be so endearing and ingenuous. But impetuosity can be reckless – even dangerous.
That’s the case in two musicals set in Germany: the 2006 Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening,” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater , based on a provocative 1891 Frank Wedekind play that was banned for decades. And the world premiere, “Harmony,” with music by Barry Manilow, inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists.
They were a mega-talented vocal sextet, who wowed audiences around the world in the 1930s, making million-selling albums and 13 movies. When they played Carnegie Hall, they had the chance to remain in the U.S. But their short-sightedness and rash self-delusion convinced them that the troubles back home would soon blow over. Three of their members were Jewish, and in short order, the Nazis disbanded the group and destroyed every scrap of their existence.
Manilow and his long-time writing partner, Bruce Sussman, spent years researching the Comedian Harmonists. Their bracing musical opened in La Jolla in 1997, and they’ve been re-working it since then. Now it’s at the Ahmanson Theatre, in a co-production with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and it’s terrific: tighter and deeper, more solid and funny and heart-breaking. The cast is outstanding, the comic numbers hilarious. A new creative team includes inventive director Tony Speciale , who is abetted by excellent choreography and spectacular set, lighting, costume and sound design. This is a traditional musical, with an overture, a wide range of musical styles, a gut-wrenching story and colorful characters and relationships. It’s both thrilling and heart-breaking. Here’s hoping the Harmonists live on for a long time to come.
Younger and more angst-ridden, the characters in “Spring Awakening” are adolescents in an earlier repressive German era, steeped in a hormonal rush of budding sexuality. They question everything, but get no answers from hidebound parents and teachers, and disaster ensues: teen pregnancy and suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and a botched abortion.
The amped-up score is riven with teenage anxiety. Every abstract, poetic song, rather than forwarding the action, is an internal monologue. The show should be relentlessly electrifying.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen it, and though Cygnet Theatre beautifully captures the drama, the raw, exhilarating energy is underplayed, except in the galvanic, unprintable 2nd-act song about being, shall we say tactfully, Totally Messed Up. The excellent six-piece band emphasizes the haunting ballads; but this should feel like a no-holds-barred, head-banging rock musical. The knockout, eye-popping lighting design, by Chris Rynne , successfully captures that potent vitality.
The young cast is dynamic, and the singing is superb, though the lyrics are often difficult to understand, compounded by the intrusive use of standup mikes. The mostly outdoor setting, though appealing, minimizes the claustrophobic feel of this confining atmosphere.
There’s much to learn from these two planngent musicals: about youth and maturity, history and tyranny.
“Harmony” runs through April 13, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
“Spring Awakening” continue through April 27 at Cygnet Theatre, in Old Town.
©2014 PAT LAUNER