2014 True West Awards: 'Annapurna,' 'Spring Awakening'




So we said the newly reconceived True West Awards would be presented over 30 days without nominations or categories. But it seems incomplete not to single out two productions for outstanding achievement by a play and musical. And so, we shall: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Annnapurna, and  Town Hall Arts Center’s Spring Awakening.

Annapurna, written by Sharr White and directed by Rebecca Remaly, opens with a damaged ex-wife showing up at the door of her bare-butted ex-husband’s squalid Colorado mountain motor home, suitcases in hand. They haven’t laid eyes on each other in 20 years, but it’s soon evident the bruises on the woman’s arms aren’t the only contusions lingering just under the surface. This reunion serves as a necessary final reckoning neither of them saw coming.

This detailed, humane character study was delivered by actors Kate Gleason and Chris Kendall like a master class in restraint. Drifting between hair-trigger anger and a lingering compassion for a broken-down addict now hooked up to oxygen, Gleason and her equal stage partner slowly revealed the terrible secrets that explain all the hurt that has built up between them like poison seeping out of a leaky gas line. Annapurna was an expertly written and utterly relatable look at love, loss and failed relationships. And Gleason’s performance, in particular, spoke volumes about the art of understatement.

I have stated for the record many times my personal feeling that Spring Awakening is the best, most exciting and most meaningful Broadway musical of the new millennium. It is, to me, hallowed theatrical ground – especially in Littleton. The creators, after all, wrote Spring Awakening as a response to the Columbine massacre in 1999. The show’s deeply meaningful mantra: Talk to your children.

Littleton Town Hall Arts Center’s staging of Spring Awakening struck me as the most impactful musical of 2014 in part because it was staged at Town Hall in the first place. Director (and board member) Nick Sugar is gradually, tastefully, moving Town Hall audiences further along the creative spectrum. Spring Awakening won the 2007 Tony Award for best musical, but it will never sell as well as, say, The Music Man or Anything Goes in the conservative climes of Littleton. Still, this is important theatre, and it needs to be seen by teenagers and grandparents alike. Next year, the mission continues with Next to Normal, the harrowing tale of a depressed housewife, scheduled alongside the saccharine The Marvelous Wonderettes.

All the more impressive given that Spring Awakening is almost impossible for any community theatre company to get right. Think about it: The original creative team had eight years to get it just the way they wanted it. The three local theatre companies that have since taken on Spring Awakening have averaged, by economic necessity, about three weeks of rehearsals each. It’s an impossible creative undertaking to fully realize in that time. So you have to your mitigate your expectations.

But Littleton Town Hall Arts Center came the closest in tackling a subject that makes audiences far more uncomfortable than even violence: Sex.

On film, sex sells. But expressed on a live stage, sex scares people to death. Spring Awakening is a revolutionary rock musical because it dares not only to talk about sex. It dares to be about sex. Because it dares to re-create a banned 1891 German tragedy about teenagers discovering the often frightening passions and urges of adolescence in the absolute absence of real information from adults. And because it dares to show the tragic consequences.

Playwright Steven Sater’s musical exists in two eras at once. The 123-year-old story is radically infused with a contemporary and joyful rock score by popular songwriter Duncan Sheik that includes songs about sexual abuse, masturbation and the aggravations of adolescence – all of which gives the night the feel of an ongoing rock concert. It’s an intentionally jarring juxtaposition of old and new that tells young people in the audience this musical understands that not much has changed for teenagers since 1891.

Told in hindsight, the story is also a powerful cautionary tale: The adorable teenage German boys we come to care for deeply as they struggle with natural questions about sex are part of the same generation that will grow up and exterminate 6 million Jews. That, the writers hope, does not go unnoticed. Such are the tragic repercussions of a lawfully imposed ignorance.

Sugar assembled an impeccable, wholly committed cast that communicated the daring, emotion and pathos of the piece in a way Town Hall audiences have never seen before. Casey Andree was pitch-perfect as Melchior: He’s the book-smart hero whose academic knowledge of the biology of sex turns out to be tragically inadequate in the absence of any real emotional understanding of the human experience that goes along with it. Heather Doris and Jake Brasch achingly played the best friends who suffered because of it. Margie Lamb and Scott McLean played all of the adult roles and avoided a common trap by simply taking their jobs seriously. The “everyman and woman” they played, after all, represent the authority whose stoicism and fear are directly responsible for the deaths of two teenagers. And why? Because they are terrified of seeing their children as sexual creatures.

Live music from Donna Debreceni and her band, along with a spare but evocative set by Tina Anderson, wonderfully supported the anachronism of the time periods.

If audiences left Spring Awakening disturbed, then I say “Good.” It’s a start. Just wait till you see Next to Normal! (It opens Feb. 13).
Honorable mention, plays:
The Whipping Man, Curious Theatre Company
Grounded, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Edge Theatre
There is a Happiness That Morning Is, The Catamounts

Honorable mention, musicals:
Memphis, Arvada Center
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Phamaly Theatre Company
Spamalot, Aurora Fox
Peter Pan, Starkey Productions 

 Coming tomorow: The 2014 Theatre Person of the Year

                                   2014 TRUE WEST AWARDS

1. Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

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