If you’re all so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?

I have to be honest here, I saw The Humans on July 3rd and have been wondering what to say about this production because it’s like no matter what words I muster together it can never do justice to the haunting and brilliant play currently running at The Ahmanson.

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Photo Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

The Humans is the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play and  Pulitzer Prize finalist (it lost this award to Hamilton) by Stephen Karam that offers you a raw and realistic look into the American family. It explores the haunting reality of the secrets we keep from one another for the sake of the family and the damage it does not only to the self but to the family when it creeps out.

The play builds like a tense thriller. Karam even offered in a conversation with Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D. (which I suggest you read here because it’s a great peak into the heart of this play) that he conceived the idea for The Humans while pondering what keeps people up at night. The whole play feels tense and unnerving like something bad is lurking on the horizon for the three generations of the Blake family who are having Thanksgiving in a new place and nothing has gone according to plan even before the play starts and yet they still persist in spending the holiday together. The unsettling tone that underlies this play is made more pronounced by the incredible lighting design by Justin Townsend.

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Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The true horrors of this play aren’t ghosts or specters but rather the ghosts of each character’s past and struggle to find meaning in existence and survival. I think we can all relate to that on some level; I’ve spent nights wondering how I’m going to get out of debt and wondering if the dream I had in college for myself will ever come to fruition. This play is meant to resonate with you and I’d be truly shocked if it doesn’t. These characters are so realistic that they feel like I’ve met them individually or that this could be my family up on that stage. The conversations sound so perfectly normal, you might think Karam sat down at his last Thanksgiving and just transcribed what he heard and then threw them onto the stage (with a little bit of editing and flair of course).

What drew me in from the first moment of the play was Reed Birney’s performance as the patriarch of this family, Erik Blake. From the way he dressed to his pointed concern about the safety of his daughter’s new apartment, he was so much like my dad. All the positives and negatives to him. I personally identified with Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele), the youngest of the family who never quite seems to think before she speaks and is struggling to make ends meet and realize her dream of being a musician. Sarah Steele captured what it’s like be a young graduate struggling for a dream and the embarrassment of having to tell your family that you aren’t working that dream job yet and are struggling. She tries though, oh so hard. Everyone on that stage is a powerhouse though and I could spend paragraphs singing praises to each of them. Instead, I think I’ll share this quote from Charles McNulty of The LA Times, “If there’s a better acting ensemble working in America right now than the extraordinary cast of ‘The Humans’…I’m unaware of its existence.”

Don’t be fooled by the early lightness of this play. What has you laughing at the beginning may have your heart wrenching by the end. Isn’t that just the way of life? Life is never all comedy and it’s never all tragedy. Family certainly has its cycles but, for the Blakes especially, their genuine love for each other will help them weather the storms ahead but I still have my doubts.  This still comes from one of the final moments of the play and I hope it gives you an idea of the emotional journey you’re in for. Again, major credit goes to Justin Townsend for knowing just how to use these lights to add another layer of meaning to every moment.

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Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacomb

I do strongly recommend this play to theatre lovers. It is perhaps not for casual fans who are looking for their first play to attend, but for someone who already admires the craft you’ll find a real gem in The Humans.  To Karam’s credit, I walked out of that theatre with a greater respect for my family and an understanding of why secrets are kept for so long. Some things are hard to admit. Some things are too frightening to bring to light.  Come for the characters but don’t be afraid to wrestle with your own demons at night after this.

The Humans is running at The Ahmanson in LA until July 29th. You can tickets at The Ahmanson website directly or through discounted sites like Goldstar. One thing I didn’t mention earlier that may sweeten the deal for you — almost every major cast member transferred from the original Broadway run to this touring production which is almost unheard of.  I love shows like this that really make you stop and think about what you’ve seen and how you relate to the material.  Go check it out before it closes or see if it’s coming to a city near you!

 

Truly, Heaven Must Feel Like This

The first musical that launched me into the world of theatre, specifically musicals, was actually Spring Awakening so I can’t think of a better first show to discuss on this blog than the production running at my favorite local haunt, The Cupcake Theater. I have actually seen this show three times while it’s been running and it’s never been quite the same each time which is really the beauty of live theatre.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Before I get into the actual experience of seeing this production, I have to really compliment The Cupcake Theater’s artistic director, Michael Pettinato, who, in deciding to do this show, wanted to bring in an all-female team to highlight a softer side to this show and draw out its more nuanced emotional core.  The team has really delivered on this front!  The vocal arrangements are incredible, the choreography is powerful, and the direction has really brought out the stories of the ladies of this show.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

Shocking as it is to some, Wendla actually has a story to tell beyond her naivety and her tragic romance with Melchior! There is so much more to her character than meets than eye and both Kelly Hancock and Mandie Hittleman draw out different aspects to Wendla in their separate turns on the stage. I saw Mandie Hittleman twice and Kelly once and each performance was completely different from the last and created such a new picture of this character for me. I walked out of that show with a newfound respect and love for Wendla that I previously did not have in comparison to her male co-stars. You really get to see her heart here. She truly loves and cares about the people that are around her that extends even beyond her friends and Melchior. She cares about society as a whole; she cares about helping people who have less than her not just because it’s something they do in church but because she actually wants to help and she wants to make this world a better place.  This kind of idealism can come off as part of this ploy to create her as a tragic naive heroine but there’s more to it than that. It’s really interesting to watch her come into her own on stage as the show progress to its climax that is really brought to attention in this particular production and not so much in its predecessors. Major kudos to The Cupcake for this.

Before I move on there’s one other particular thing I want to highlight with the ladies. The struggles of Martha and Ilse are uniquely highlighted and illustrated through a powerful sequence of choreography during “The Dark I Know Well” that truly captures the helplessness they feel even as they recount the horrors they endure on a daily basis but also those still to come not even just for them but potentially for the other women in the show. This was one of my favorite moments of the show and it’s not one I think I’ll soon forget. I wish there were production stills I could share of this moment to even give you the smallest of hint what it’s like. Such an incredibly smart decision from this team.

I would be remiss to write this post without mentioning the men of this show. A major shout out has to go to Evan Marshall who was such a powerful Melchior. He had that rebellious nature that we know and love about Melchior but played it with such an emotional presence that illustrated what his character has been searching for this whole time — someone who understands him and someone who also wants more than just the stagnant world around them.  In light of this, it’s certainly easy to understand why all the girls on stage are swooning over him during “My Junk.” Don’t even get me started on that voice that can move between the soft falsetto of “Left Behind” into a more grungy rock feel for “Totally Fucked” so easily. It’s incredible. Truly.  You can bet I’ll be on the lookout for another chance to Evan on stage.

Oh. Friendly warning. There’s spoilers ahead.

While I loved Melchior, I have to admit I was a little divided on Moritz. My first time seeing this production, I was delighted to have Thomas Adoue Polk in the role who I had seen in his outings as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Will in American Idiot, both at The Cupcake.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

He brings a more comical side to the character that felt more like the other iterations of the musical I had seen (Deaf West Spring Awakening and…do I dare admit…the bootleg of the original cast) that brings such a levity to the show in all the right moments while also making his inevitable suicide somehow even more tragic. This could be because you really see how “the system” and society’s rejections of him truly destroy him.

Thomas also has a really great voice for the rock leanings of this show’s music so his rendition of “Don’t Do Sadness” was so on point but also a little bit familiar. Not that that’s a bad thing because, as we know, John Gallagher Jr. took home a Tony for his performance as Moritz.The Cupcake put a lot of effort into doing some new with the rest of the show and everything sounds so fresh and new, I did want a little bit more variation from him. Take that with a grain of salt though since I truly enjoyed his performance and was looking forward to seeing him a second time.

I did end up seeing Robert Manion twice in the role of Moritz, not Thomas, and his approach to Moritz is almost the exact opposite of his castmate.

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

My first time seeing Robert, I was underwhelmed. He presented a Moritz that is somber and morose the entire show in a way that  sucked the energy from some of the scenes that he was in, especially those moments before “Bitch of Living” and “Touch Me.” This approach to his character really works well for the second half of the show when we see Moritz spiral but it left me  wanting more of an arc from him.  I wanted to see Mortiz change and grow and move toward something, and it frustrated me to see the same thing from Robert in each scene.

Now, that being said, I also saw him a second time that was far more balanced. More reserved than my experience with Thomas,  but not nearly as one-level as the time before. Robert has this soft voice that is beautiful  but also such a  commanding presence on stage that is a really unique combination especially for Moritz. He sings with a more timid voice which really works for “Don’t Do Sadness” in illustrating this struggle Moritz is having with his decision to kill himself. You can see his fear and the utter despair in his soul which lands so much more heavily on the audience when you see those moments of hope and utter joy from the first act. I understand, on one hand,  the instinct to portray Moritz as this almost haunted individual who, from the beginning, doesn’t fit with the people around him and is struggling to conform to society and perform at the level everyone so rigidly expects because it really highlights Moritz as a victim. I do think Moritz is a clear victim, like Wendla and Melchior, but I prefer an approach that doesn’t make his suicide seem inevitable from the first moment we see him. The second time I saw Robert, he captured more of that and I enjoyed the show even more as a result.

Before I go, here’s one last production still before I go during one of the most popular and iconic songs from this show, “Touch Me.”

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Photo Credit: Joel D. Castro

In the middle is Rehyan Rivera who was one of the stand outs for me. I’ve seen him in a couple of shows at The Cupcake but never quite like this.  He is such a delight to watch. He’s an incredible dancer (and choreographer, actually! He recently won a Valley Theatre Award for his choreography for Cupcake’s production of Legally Blonde. Congratulations!) and his voice is so smooth and strong. Incredible job all three times I had the privilege to see him. I can’t wait to see what’s next for him.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with this production. The Cupcake has really put forth what I think is their best show to date. Now, I might be biased because this kind of heavy and tragic musical is pretty much my aesthetic but I’d like to believe I still have some objective opinion on every show I have a chance to see.

Spring Awakening is closing very soon so if you’re in the LA area and aren’t sure what do this weekend, check it out before it closes on July 8th! You can get tickets either through The Cupcake’s website here or grab some slightly cheaper tickets from Goldstar. Do what you can to get out there and support this theater. I’d be going again if I weren’t already seeing something weekend. Maybe I should rearrange my schedule to go anyway….