Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Reviews: The New “Spring Awakening” Documentary is a Joy for Fans, while Broadway’s “POTUS” is a Female Empowerment Farce

Spring Awakening: Those You've Known (c) HBO

Film Review: Spring Awakening: Those You've Known 
Currently on HBO and streaming on HBO Max 

I first saw the rock musical “Spring Awakening,” based on the Frank Wedekind 1891 play, at an early concert performance at Lincoln Center in 2005, just because it was pop songwriter Duncan Sheik’s first foray into musicals. It was a fine effort, but I didn’t think it would ever get produced. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see it again, this time at its off-Broadway premiere at the Atlantic Theater in 2006. The piece had been rewritten by Sheik and Steven Slater and was now an extremely exuberant show. It focused on the sexual awakening of a group of German kids, anachronistically pulling mics out of their jackets and jump on their desks to sing rock songs. But when it was announced that the show was transferring to Broadway, I again had my doubts. Well, almost 900 performances later, when it closed in 2009, it had indeed become a cultural phenomenon and an heir apparent to “Rent” which I could never have predicted from that first, humble concert. It was the starting point for many of its young casts’ careers, most specifically Jonathan Groff and Lea Michelle. In fact, Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” walked so the TV show “Glee” could run. In November 2021, the cast reunited for a benefit concert on Broadway. It was said that the pandemic had cleared their schedules. Fun fact: most were 15 or 16 when they started with the show. They are now in their 30s. 

Spring Awakening: Those You Know (c) HBO

The documentary “Spring Awakening: Those You've Known,” goes through the musical numbers, more-or-less chronologically, with director Michael John Warren blending footage from the off-Broadway and Broadway productions, the rehearsal of the reunion concert and the concert itself as the creators and the cast go through the history and birth of the musical. One of the stories includes Groff’s fear he would not be accepted in the lead role of straight Melchior since he was secretly gay (Groff cries a lot in this doc) and how lead Lea Michelle (who played the girl he liked) would react. The film also catches up with, although not quite as prominently, other breakout stars from the show, including John Gallagher Jr. (“Spring Awakening’s” only acting Tony Award winner as Moritz), who was so good in the film “Short Term 12,” as well as future Tony-nominee Lilli Cooper, currently on Broadway in “POTUS.” This, of course, is not a hard-hitting doc, but a loving historical one that doesn’t “do sadness.” But I don’t think it will matter to its legions of fans who missed the reunion and hold the show close to their heart. For us … I mean them, it’s a touching time capsule of a musical that was a word-of-mouth success before the era of social media. For the uninitiated, the show does shine through, so maybe it’s time for a spring re-awakening of the show. We do seem to be going into another dark period of conservative ideology (“blah blah blah blah blah”) in which songs like “Totally Fucked” and “My Junk” may again be regarded as “too much” for a show about teens to conservative ears. If nothing else, hopefully this doc can help another kid, even in this internet age, with no outlet to talk about insecurities, adolescence and puberty, see that their problems are not unique to them. 

POTUS (c) Paul Kolnick

Theater Review: POTUS Or, Behind Every Great 
Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive 
On Broadway at the Shubert Theatre 

Let’s get it out of the way right off the bat: “POTUS,” playwright Selina Fillinger’s Broadway debut, has nothing to do specifically with 45. This seems to be a missed opportunity since there is so much awfulness to be mined from those four years that the play’s subtitle “Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” would seem accurate (except I would never call 45 great). Unfortunately, Fillinger’s target is less about a specific person and more about the office, so already the play is defanged and sort of aimless. The biggest personality that this POTUS has is a medical condition centered around his anal area, which gives us at least fifteen minutes of innuendo discussions as well as obvious jokes with easy laughs that go no deeper than the latest political meme (or anal fissure). “POTUS” is essentially an episode of “VEEP” where Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s character is split between seven women, with the closest character in spirit to Selina Meyer being Harriet, the chief of staff, and that’s only because she’s played by the estimable Julie White, who seems to be coasting along with her signature “halt then scream” line readings we’ve seen before – but it’s never not funny. 

POTUS (c) Paul Kolnick

The rest of the characters is a mixed bag. On the plus side are Suzy Nakamura as the much put-upon press secretary Jean and, surprisingly enough, go-for-broke Julianne Hough as the Gen Z, social-media savvy Dusty. Vanessa Williams, Lilli Cooper and Lea DeLaria have their moments, but their characters are just too paper thin to care. Rachel Dratch is essentially the play’s clown and your enjoyment of her physical schtick will vary. With all that said, this is a farce and there are many jokes that land, due to the collective talents of this cast, but their hard work trying to keep this play alive is for naught. Susan Stroman surely knows how to time doors slamming and keeps the action at a fevered pace, but even she had to dig down deep into her musical theater bag of tricks for a curtain call concert that’s needless as it feels desperate. I will note that I haven’t seen this much audience enthusiasm for a new show since “Six.” Both have their legions of female fans who feel the need to celebrate “girl power” in any form on any Broadway stage. More power to “POTUS.”

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