CMU does justice to 'Spring Awakening'; Point Park works to clean up the messy Cold War-set 'Chess'
Joe Pudetti plays Anatoly in Point Park Conservatory's production of "Chess."
Emily Koch portrays Wendla in "Spring Awakening" at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Your weekend is saved: This is a happy chance to see contrasting musicals by Pittsburgh's two big musical theater training programs, both of which regularly send graduates into the national professional pool.
Carnegie Mellon University's drama school is the more selective, with the bigger national reputation, and "Spring Awakening" is a fitting showcase for a relatively small cast of 13, all senior music theater majors. It also showcases the work of its student designers, whose national reputation is equally high.
Point Park's reputation is more regional but growing. It enrolls many more students, so, appropriately, "Chess" puts 30 on stage, freshmen to seniors, with sophomores in several leads. Its designers are faculty.
The two shows could hardly be more different, as well, rewarding the audience in contrasting ways. Dealing with Cold War politics, "Chess" (1986) is the more traditional in form, a political melodrama with a score by the two men from ABBA. Dealing with teenage sexuality and societal repression, "Spring Awakening" (2005) is a tragedy that marries a famously controversial Frank Wedekind play (1891) to an alt/folk rock score.
Even the printed programs are different. CMU's includes extensive historical material (it has a dramaturg) but no student bios, while Point Park has bios but no background (it doesn't). Surely a college program should include some background? As to bios, I'm more ambivalent.
There's no ambivalence about the fine direction by Scott Wise (Point Park) and Tome Cousin (CMU). And both pit bands, both nine strong, are pros, led by music directors Thomas Douglas (CMU) and Camille Villalpando Rolla (Point Park).
The musical's history has been as fraught as big-time Cold War chess (think Bobby Fischer and several Russian masters). Starting out as a powerful 1984 album by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with lyrics by Tim Rice, "Chess" was a Trevor Nunn stage hit in London and a flop as rewritten (the American wins) on Broadway. It has been frequently revised; Pittsburgh CLO did a version in 1997. There's no credit for book, that being (as usual) the problem.
At the story's center are chess champions Freddie (Keaton Jadwin), as willful as individualist, capitalist America can produce, and Anatoly (Joe Pudetti), as repressed as obsessive, oppressive Russia requires. Completing the triangle is Florence (Jesse Pardee), initially Freddie's second but soon Anatoly's lover. Surrounding them is a full array of agents, both commercial and governmental. The KGB is everywhere -- or are those American ad execs? Familial complications (Anatoly's wife, Florence's Hungarian revolutionary father) come mainly from the Russian side.
More than the other versions I've seen, this "Chess" seems like a Cold War "Romeo and Juliet" (Freddie is Tybalt), with "a curse on both your houses" the inevitable response. For this clarity, we can thank the direction, which finds the central narrative line and sticks to it.
Not that there isn't plenty of turbulence, some intentional, some not. "Chess" is a messy affair that you can clean up only so much. I don't think Anne Mundell's admirably atmospheric set helps, confining the action in front of four tall columns of debris (history?). Meanwhile, actors sit glowering on upstage bleachers like the Politburo. Andrew Ostrowski's lights and Jessi Sedon-Essad's spectral projections are impressive but increase the general murk.
The star of the show is Mr. Pudetti's Anatoly, restrained but charismatic, always a center of attention. His "Anthem" is a thrill. Mr. Jadwin is burdened with Freddie's unremitting whine but makes the most of his great confessional, "Pity the Child." Ms. Pardee is physically stiff but contributes a powerful voice. There are several telling smaller roles.
Mr. Wise's choreography replicates chess moves -- I think I saw bishops, rooks and queens -- a clever but repetitive attempt to enliven a heavy show. Perhaps "Chess" is really more oratorio than musical. Yet the battle of ideologies provides suspense, and whatever happened to the historical Cold War, that battle isn't over yet.
This is "Romeo and Juliet," too, but more intimately, concentrating on personal sexuality, not opposing families or societies. The focus on frustrated teenagers, left ignorant of their burgeoning sex drives, is framed with angry contempt for the prejudice and hypocrisy of the older generation that condemns them to tragic ignorance.
It's hard to believe Wedekind's original "Spring Awakening: A Children's Tragedy" was written in 1891, but easy to understand that it wasn't produced until 1906 and in America until 1916, when it was charged with pornography. When I first saw it at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, it still felt shocking.
Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (score) brilliantly prune the story and, believe it or not, somewhat soften it -- here, Melchior (Taylor Jack Helmboldt) and Wendla (Emily Koch) are actually in love. When it arrived on Broadway, the chief shock was the contrast of the old painful story and explosive rock score.
It starts sweetly enough, as six German boys and five girls giggle and grow up. (You might think of "Our Town.") Then we see the rigid school that imprisons the boys -- we don't get that with the girls, a hint of sexist imbalance for which we can hardly blame Wedekind. With sexual maturity comes misinformation, experimentation and tragedy.
The least happy of the 11 is the hapless Moritz (Trevor McQueen), bedeviled by Latin (which is full of sex -- Venus, Achilles, Patroclus!) as much as by wet dreams. All the 11 are interesting, and a few get to double as other youths who've unhappily "escaped."
Mr. Helmboldt is a charismatic lead, making Melchior's intelligence and insight even more believable than his unintended cruelty. Ms. Koch is affectingly innocent and ambivalently knowing, as well. (There's a touch of nudity; you shouldn't be bringing young children anyway.)
Jesse Carrey-Beaver as the slyly knowing Hanschen and Jon Jorgenson as the deliciously innocent Ernst have a lovely love scene. And Katya Stepanov and Nick Rehberger play all the adults -- teachers, parents, doctor, priest -- with remarkable variety.
As lit by Dan Efros, Bryce Cutler's often beautiful set includes a moving platform of riverbank trees, a background of taller trees, a starscape and as many as 30 vertical strings of lights that together suggest contrasting aspiration and reality.
Mr. Cousin provides powerful, affecting choreography, dramatizing the passions seething through uncomprehending bodies. The insistent score is alternately melancholy and ebullient. "Spring Awakening" is one of the best musicals of this century.
First Published February 27, 2013 12:00 am