Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
February 22, 2013
The Killer Instinct. It can spiral out of control — in the classroom or the bedroom. This is one hot week for homicide in the theater.
Teenage angst and high school hijinks take a decidedly dark and disturbing turn in “Punk Rock,” a 2009 drama by British playwright Simon Stephens. It’s set in Northern England, but could be ripped from any American newspaper. By title alone, it sounds like a musical, maybe a “Spring Awakening” redux . But though the age group, the anxiety and the fumbling sexuality may be the same, the only music comes between scenes, when the school-kids jump around like hopped-up, sexed-up jackrabbits.
The tension builds in the library of a high-pressure prep school, where the stressed-out, hormonally amped students are preparing for mock exams, teasing and flirting, revealing secrets, being rebuffed and debased and bullied. These young scholars, all damaged and tortured in their own ways, are raw and real, especially as gut-wrenchingly portrayed by a spectacular young cast at ion theatre, under the taut direction of Glenn Paris.
There’s the merciless bully masking uncertainty about his sexuality; the smart new girl who cuts herself; the traumatized achiever terrified of getting anything less than an A; the beleaguered overweight girl who fantasizes about her teacher; and quick-witted, self-doubting William, the one who ultimately snaps – with a gun in his hand. But any one of them could’ve been the first to break under the agony of adolescence.
It’s a troubling picture, frighteningly accurate and unsentimental. No love songs or redemption here. It’s not even clear that there are any regrets. Perhaps that’s most unsettling of all.
These violence-addicted kids make the Murderer’s Row of the musical “Chicago” look like pikers. The brilliant 1975 Kander and Ebb musical shows the circus of media attention, the ‘ razzle dazzle’ of sleazy attorneys who’ll say anything for a buck; the star-struck sexy killers who just want front-page coverage. You can’t help but love ‘ em , especially in San Diego Musical Theatre’s killer production, the Southern California Regional Premiere of the stripped-down, black-clad, sensuous 1996 revival.
Director Ron Kellum and choreographer Randy Slovacek are veterans of the musical’s Broadway and touring productions; the result is just about flawless. There’s never been better Fosse-style, slumped/angular dancing in San Diego. Period.
Roxie Hart is gorgeously played by a knockout singer/dancer/actor named Emma Radwick , who hails from Australia, lives in Del Mar, and is making her American performance debut. She’s a star by any definition. Her partners in crime are super: Kyra Da Costa as Velma, Robert J. Townsend as the oily lawyer and A. Saunders as Mary Sunshine. Behind the large, talented cast, masterful musical director Don LeMaster conducts a brassy, 13-piece onstage orchestra.
Murder is no laughing matter, but this deliciously dark musical is something to celebrate. For the sobering prequel, see “Punk Rock.”
The San Diego Musical Theatre production of “Chicago” runs through March 3 at the Birch North Park Theatre.
“Punk Rock” continues through March 8, at ion theatre, on the edge of Hillcrest.
©2013 PAT LAUNER