Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In the Heights

Spectacular. That is really the one word that can summarize In the Heights. The rest of this post will simply be about why the show was so spectacular. In the Heights is about a community in Washington Heights, Manhattan. If you’ve ever been to New York City, you may realize how easily you can get lost. Not directionally lost, but lost in the sense that you are alone, surrounded by a million people. I’ve often told people that New York is the only place in the world that I’ve ever been completely alone, yet surrounded by people at the same time. But as a tourist, it’s different. I imagine that if you live in New York that you can find little communities like the one portrayed in In the Heights. At least I hope there are. Because having a home and a community to be part of is such an important thing and becomes the ultimate theme of the whole show.

In the Heights focuses on a small area of Washington Heights that is mostly Latino. Many of the people are immigrants from South American countries, or first generation American-born. Because it focuses on such a small area, the history and culture of the area is distinct. There are the Rosario’s, who own the local taxi & limo service, who’s daughter Nina is home from her first year at Stanford University. There are Usnavi and his cousin Sonny who run the local bodega. Next to Usnavi’s shop, is the local hair salon, run by Daniela with the help of Carla and Vanessa. Daniela’s shop is closing & moving due to rent increases. Vanessa just wants out of Washington Heights.

The whole community almost seems to be held together by the local patriarch, Abuela Claudia, played beautifully by Elise Santora, who is much younger than her character but captures the love of Abuela so well. She’s taken care of all of the children as they’ve grown up. She cared for Usnavi after his parents passed away. And she’s been a constant source of community of the neighborhood. It’s like she’s the central person that they all gravitate toward. And rightly so. Abuela is such a caring, loving person. She reminded me so much of my own grandmother, always worrying about people and their well-being. Usnavi was played by Joseph Morales. He was fantastic. I thought he did a amazing job with the whole role, but I really loved his actions around Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa. He was extremely convincing in his nervousness around her. And it was very endearing.

Vanessa was played by the lovely Lexi Lawson (who I saw in the role of Mimi in Rent on tour a few years ago). Vanessa reminded me so much of myself in her desire to just get out of where she’s at. She wants out of Washington Heights. She wants a better job. She wants more than what she’s got.

The set itself is so amazing. From the third row where I sat, I felt like I was actually in Washington Heights. And the lighting, especially during the number “Blackout” (a great number to end the first act) was fantastic. In watching this show, you spend three days with these people, in their community. And you leave feeling like you are friends with them. Like you could walk down the street and see them, and stop to have a conversation. I walked out of that show feeling invested in the characters, and the show.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who began writing this show when he was a sophomore in college, managed to create a beautiful, touching piece of theatre. If he never did anything else in his life, he would have written one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see it on Broadway. I’m kicking myself for it now, but am eternally grateful to the tour cast for bringing the show to Nashville. On a side note, I want to specifically thank this cast for being so welcoming. Joseph Morales and Lexi Lawson both tweet. And both have tweeted me on several occasions when I tweeted questions. Including Joseph, who I tweeted at intermission and he tweeted back within a couple of minutes. That means a lot to fans. I don’t know if they realize how much. I won’t get into it all, but I will say that BroadwayGirlNYC wrote a fantastic post at Broadway World that covers it pretty well. I don’t know if they’ll read this, but I wanted to thank them for responding to their fans on Twitter.

Also, April Ortiz, who played the role of Daniela was totally awesome at the stage door. She was one of the last people out and stood around to talk with us. More than just the typical signing autographs and moving on. I was probably the oldest person at that stage door and it meant a lot to me. But the younger teens who were there… I’m sure that’s an experience they will never forget. Thank you for shaping their memories of the theater. And for shaping mine.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

American Idiot Closing

Last week the official announcement came. American Idiot on Broadway is closing April 24th, 2011. It’s not like those of us who are fans weren’t expecting it. But I think we were all hoping it would hold out just a little bit longer. Other than times when Billie Joe was in the show, it was only selling at 40%-60%. You can’t run a show on numbers like that.

In honor of the closing of the show, I’d like to share about why I love this show so much. Explaining what a show means to me usually isn’t very hard. They are comic relief, or they made me think, or I connected with a character. But before American Idiot, I’d never felt the need to see a show more than once. Sure, there are shows I’d love to have seen again. But nothing made me feel like I needed to see it again. American Idiot did that for me. I connected to the show. I connected to the lyrics. I connected to the characters.

I am not a Green Day fan (or I wasn’t before this show). It really is not my type of music. And the music was a little more political than I liked. On top of not being a huge Green Day fan, I also tend to lean conservative politically. Not in everything, but I do have conservative tendencies. Add those together and American Idiot/Green Day wouldn’t really be on the top of my list of things to check out in concert or on Broadway.

But I saw it. And I loved it, in spite of all the screaming teenagers who are there because they “totally love, love, love” Green Day. The show is actually the story of my generation. Those of us who were young adults when 9/11 happened. We were just getting out into the “real world.” We weren’t sure what we were doing with our lives.
We’re the generation that came from broken homes. We were latch-key kids. We grew up with little parental supervision because our parents were working all the time, or simply just weren’t around. We were raised on MTV and cable television. We lived lives before cell phones and large portions of our lives before the internet.
I will guarantee you that every single person in my generation can see themselves or someone that they know up on the stage during an American Idiot performance. We all know someone who got knocked up (or knocked someone up). We all know someone who got messed up in drugs and partying. We all know someone who joined the military, for whatever reason. I personal know more than one person that I went to high school with that was hurt while in battle.
For me, that person I connect to is an ensemble member (most often played by Leslie McDonel, if I'm not mistaken). Toward the end of the show, after Johnny has "straightened up" and is working a desk job. Some of the cast comes out ready for a professional job. Leslie is in a skirt and shirt, looking professional and ready to work. But like every other person on that stage, still feels trapped in her life. That's me. I'm living an adult life. But I don't always feel like I'm living life the way I should.
Growing up is hard. Being a grown-up is hard. It’s something our parents never told us. They made it look so easy. But even as I sit here, knocking on the door of thirty, I feel like I’m 16 and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. That’s what all of those characters in American Idiot are dealing with.
Maybe those are the reasons I connect with that show. Sure, I never got hooked on drugs, or dealt with an unplanned pregnancy, or went to war. But those stories are just part of my life. They are a representation of what I, and an entire generation, have dealt with. Those characters on stage represent my friends, my neighbors, and in many ways, myself.
Life doesn’t always have a happy ending. Just like this show doesn’t leave everyone with the ending that would be considered happy. But it does leave you with hope. Hope that you’ll make it. Hope that there is a tomorrow. It may not be the tomorrow you planned on, but tomorrow will come. And you’ll get through it.
Currently, I've seen American Idiot on Broadway four times. I'll be seeing the show a fifth, and final time in early April. I can guarantee that it will be bittersweet parting for me. I plan on wearing little make-up and stuffing my purse full of tissues. I know I'm going to need them.
To the cast members who have made this show so memorable for me, I say thank you for personifying my generation and my life. To Green Day and Michael Mayer, thank you for giving them the chance to do so. Even though a thousand people may tell you how wonderful this show is, and how much it touched their lives, I didn't want to miss my chance to thank you. This show changed my life in many ways. But more than that, it told my story. Thank you for telling my story. It means more than you can ever know.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Spring Awakening

My first memory of Spring Awakening was the performance I saw by the original cast on the 2007 Tony Awards. At the time, I wasn’t going to New York on a regular basis, and I wasn’t following theatre very closely (my addiction was there, but hadn’t taken full root yet. ;). I knew I’d love to see the show. And watching them win 8 Tony awards that night really made me wish I could see it. Sadly, I didn’t get to see the show before it closed. But I did purchase the cast recording fairly quickly and had a basic idea of the plotline of the show.

Knowing that the subject matter of the show was very controversial (even the cast recording as an EXPLICIT label on it) and has some nudity in it, I really figured it would never even come close to Tennessee. I love my state and I love where I live, but sometimes it can be conservative to a fault. Shows like Spring Awakening and RENT are going to get way less support than shows that some would call “more appropriate”.

Anyway, that knowledge in mind, when Spring Awakening came to Atlanta last year, myself and a friend went down to see the show. It was, to say the least, AMAZING. The talent in the show was incredible. But the show itself was a masterpiece. I’m not here to give my opinion on that production, however. I’m here to share about another production of the show. Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center actually picked it up for this season.

If you aren’t familiar with Spring Awakening, one of the most distinguishing parts of the show is that a limited number of audience members sit on stage during the show. I was advised to not get stage seating for the first time I saw the show, but since I’d already seen the show, I opted to try to get a ticket for stage seating when they released additional seating the week before the show opened at TPAC in Nashville. They are cheaper (only $25) than any other seating in the theatre and I knew I was going to be in Nashville last Saturday anyway. And I was lucky. I was able to get a seat.

When you show up at the theatre you go to a specific area and are lined up in a particular order. One person I was standing next to had been at the show the night before and enjoyed it so much she came back. On the other side of me was a young man (only 18) that had tickets to every single show that weekend (the production was only in town Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). Upon talking with him a little more, I found out he’d seen it 7 times on Broadway and had traveled all over the country following the equity tour. Wow (That almost makes me feel normal about my obsession with American Idiot. Almost.).

The set design is pretty amazing. It has things hanging all over the walls, and it looks very crazy, but the coloring fits the mood of the show. It has a very similar feel to the set design from American Idiot, which is no surprise since they were both designed by the very talented Christine Jones. There are two rows of chairs sitting on each side of the stage. Some are left empty for the cast members to use. The musicians are on stage as well. Outside of a few props, and the chairs the cast use, the set is just lighting, the design on the walls, and an area of the floor that is covered in one area with a simple painted design.

The strength of the show is in the music and the dialogue. The songs are almost separate from the dialogue part of the show. It takes place in the 1890s in Germany, so you would think that the rock music type score would clash. But it works. The actors are in one mode while the dialogue is happening, and when the music starts, microphones appear from jacket pockets and the concert begins.

Overall, the show delves into what happens in a truly repressive society where the adults are refusing to talk to the children about ANYTHING even remotely sexual in nature. Once again, even being a conservative of sorts, I can see the problems with this. You end up with what happens in this musical. You have children who are trying to deal with their blooming sexuality, and you end up with death, unplanned pregnancy, and children who have no idea how to deal with issues like homosexuality and masturbation.

The actors in the show were amazing as well. In appearance, they were much younger looking than the cast I saw in Atlanta, and they also looked much younger than the original Broadway cast. One of my favorite characters in the show, Ilse, was played by the beautiful and brilliantly talented Courtney Markowitz. I have always been fascinated with the role of the “outcast” who had been abused and then kicked out of her home when she tried to report it. That character also sings two of my favorite songs in the show, “Blue Wind” and the haunting “The Song of Purple Summer,” which concludes the show.

Elizabeth Judd played a wonderfully innocent Wendla. She was perhaps the youngest looking cast member on stage, which gave credibility to her role. Jeff Ostermueller (understudy) was in for the role of Melchior and did a superb job. In fact, there wasn’t a member of the entire cast that I have a bad word to speak about.

The only issue that happened was during the dialogue right before “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Blue Wind.” There were some technical difficulties. The microphones for both Moritz and Ilse didn’t work. Those of us on the stage could hear them talking, but I’m sure no one past the first couple of rows could. Someone ran out handheld mics to both of them. But I would have hated to have been in the shoes of Courtney Markowitz or Coby Getzug. I very much felt sick to my stomach for them. But they were very professional and just kept right on going.

Perhaps it was because I was seeing the show from the stage (and catching all the little things (mess-ups, facial expressions, etc.), but I enjoyed it more than I had the first time. And I enjoyed it thoroughly the first time I saw it. My advice is that even if you’ve seen the show before, so see this production of it. It would be well worth your time.

Also, if you'd like to read a "real" review, go check out Jeffrey Ellis' review HERE.