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Review: 'Spring Awakening' at the Winspear

by Jerome Weeks 25 Mar 2010 7:25 AM

Awakening won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, and just this week, it won another best musical trophy — this time at the Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent to the Tony. This week also saw the national tour open at the Winspear Opera House. But is it the landmark rock ‘n’ roll musical people have been hailing? Jerome Weeks reviews.


Spring Awakening won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, and just this week, it won another best musical trophy — this time at the Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent to the Tony. This week also saw the national tour open at the Winspear Opera House, courtesy of the AT&T PAC’s Lexus Broadway Series. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this review.

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The reason Spring Awakening is often called a rock musical is not necessarily the music. There are only two or three numbers among the show’s 18 that come close to getting this party started or burning down the house or kicking out the jams. Otherwise, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s music is pretty much like the music in Hair and Rent, those other supposed rock musicals that are mostly just pop with some bohemian flair. For long stretches, Spring Awakening‘s songs wouldn’t be out of place on a playlist of angsty, emo singer-songwriters.

No, Spring Awakening is a landmark Broadway show because, front and center, it’s powered by the same things that power a lot of rock ‘n’ roll: adult hypocrisy and raging, teenage, sexual frustration. That’s what gives the show and music their kick — that and the boundary-breaking treatment of underage sex, whether it’s straight, gay, abusive and even a little “disciplined.” These teens are so miserable, so isolated, they’ll hit each other just to feel something.

[music “And Then There Were None”]

Spring Awakening is adapted from German author Frank Wedekind’s play, which was a shocker in 1891. In fact, Wedekind only self-published it in 1891. The play didn’t get produced in a censored version until 1905 — and even then, it generated as much outrage as praise. The musical softens Wedekind’s original play but not by much. What was scathing satire is now broader comedy. Still, with its flashes of nudity, shouted obscenities and repressed eroticism, this adaptation qualifies as fairly daring — for a Broadway tour.

The story follows a cluster of provincial German schoolkids who are tormented by their taskmaster teachers and unforgiving parents, by their own ignorance and by their discovery of sexual desire, a force so powerful, so confusing, it promises to free them or destroy them. A chief reason the musical can seem such a departure from old-school Broadway tuners is that Wedekind’s dramatic structure — 15 scenes loosely following three major characters with other students popping in and out — means that Sater and Sheik don’t have to “advance” the storyline so much with their songs. So the numbers can be more “stand alone” — as introspective ballads or chorus hopalongs.

It also shows how radical Wedekind’s play was at the time that– years before Sigmund Freud — Spring Awakening has a sexually abusive parent and a young character like Moritz, who complains about female legs taunting him in his dreams. The sexual impulse as something underground but unstoppable, something revolutionary or retrograde depending on what it goes up against was probably the chief subject of Wedekind, the author of Pandora’s Box — which became the famous German expressionist film from 1929 with Louise Brooks and Lulu, the Alban Berg opera about a sexually provocative but exploited young beauty.

The Spring Awakening tour doesn’t feel quite as compressed or compelling as the original, partly because the Winspear is twice the size of Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The vast stage weakens the sense of a pressure cooker, of small-town lives being lived cheek by jowl, with the only privacy or escape to be found hiding in the woods.

The cast is strong, though, and the production’s solid. Jason Epstein is a dark, handsome heartthrob as Melchior, the group’s leader and freethinker. Unfortunately, Epstein is about 10 years older than any schoolboy finding first love in a hayloft. It may seem a petty point, but although he’s a terrific physical presence and singer, he’s not convincing with that fumbling mix of daring and doubt a 15-year-old would have.

On the other hand, Christy Altomare (left) has the perfect, hushed-but-troubled innocence as that first love, Wendla. She could pass for 16, easily. As the earnest, academically challenged goof, Moritz, Taylor Trensch (above) is a potent blend of sullen and frightful, bratty and clueless. I’d hoped for more snarl to his singing, though — Moritz is the closest thing Spring Awakening has to an out-and-out punk, Johnny Rotten in short pants and tight school uniform.

Spring Awakening really succeeds at those moments when all the hormonal impatience and repressed teen energy are vividly transmitted by director Michael Mayer’s dark, aggressive staging and Bill T. Jones’ stomping, twitching choreography. If you listen to the cast album, it can sound surprisingly limp — Broadway simply doesn’t do ragged and raw the way rock ‘n’ roll often needs to be done.

But when Trensch is spitting out the lyrics and slamming his mike, Spring Awakening can kick.