Spring Awakening is not your grandma's musical, even though the events of the show and the source material are dated closer to her birth date than yours. This unconventional musical combines contemporary sounding songs with a story that takes place over a century ago. It also speaks primarily to young theatergoers even as certain elements of its subject matter might be considered too adult for that audience by some parents. Still, this show which won the 2007 Tony Award for Best New Musical succeeds on most levels, as demonstrated in the national tour currently playing the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the controversial 1891 German play of the same title by Frank Wedekind. The show follows a group of teens during that time period trying to deal with their budding and confusing sexuality in a society that represses any discussion on the topic whatsoever. Central to the story are innocent Wendla, rebellious Melchior, and intensely confused Moritz. Their attempts to understand and explore these thoughts and longings within that world's strict boundaries have devastating results. The dark story, which addresses topics such as abortion, incest, suicide and masturbation, was banned in Germany for decades.
The storytelling for this version is very unique. Most of the dialogue is told in what would be a described as a fairly straightforward English translation of late 1800s German play. However, when the characters break into song, the musical choice is modern-day alternative rock (often accompanied by performances using hand-held microphones) and the lyrics are decidedly 21st century. The juxtaposition of going from hearing formal "old-fashioned" speaking to rock music with lyrics including current day references such as "junk," "stereo," "cool" and "crash and burn" can be jarring at first. The book by Steven Sater clearly tells the story, and earned him a Tony Award. There is just enough humor to balance out an otherwise downer of a tale, and the changes from the original Wedekind play serve this version well (though the second act does somewhat drag). The music by Duncan Sheik is one of the primary assets of the show, with highly melodic tunes (aided by first-rate orchestrations also by Sheik and great vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo) that capture the emotion and tone of the messages within each song wonderfully. The lyrics by Mr. Sater are appropriate to the musical style and story, but come across as lazy in form. The lyrics contain false rhymes or accents, and lack the level of craft usually associated with musical theater standards. Song highlights from this Tony Award winning score include "Mama Who Bore Me" (especially effective in the reprise version), the pounding "The Bitch of Living," which conveys the boys' frustration at all things adolescent, "Touch Me," and the haunting "Left Behind."
Jake Epstein brings tons of charisma and a necessary fiery strength as the intelligent and headstrong Melchior. As Wendla, 2008 CCM grad Christy Altomare captures the sweet innocence of the character and is both endearing and heartbreaking in her portrayal. Taylor Trensch convincingly conveys the manic insecurity of Moritz, and adds much to the performance through non-verbal cues as well. All three lead performers sing well, though none can quite match the quality of vocals of the original Broadway performers who originated the roles.
The entire ensemble does extremely well in keeping up a high energy level and jumping (both literally and figuratively) back and forth between the various styles of the piece. Angela Reed and John Wojda portray the many adult characters with enough details to distinguish each from one another, and Andy Mientus scores well with his dry humor as Hanschen.
Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones both won Tony Awards for their work on Spring Awakening. Mr. Mayer provides fluid blocking and transitions, and a suitable tone throughout. He also is able to bring the many diverse elements of this show together to make a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The choreography by Mr. Jones can't really be considered traditional dance, but rather stylized movement. It is appropriate to the music and characters (at least their 21st century singing counterparts), though if you really want to see this choreographer's work in a musical theater setting, the current Broadway show Fela! might be a better choice. Jared Stein enthusiastically leads a rockin' onstage band.
The unit set by Christine Jones features a three-sided brick wall, with a rectangular performance space that is surrounded by the band and onstage audience seating. The set works sufficiently as both a late 19th century German classroom (and other locales) and the rock concert venue it becomes at times. The lighting by Kevin Adams is superb, enhancing and defining the setting, mood, and atmosphere through a variety of effects. Susan Hilferty's costumes accurately reflect the period while still having just a bit of modern day sensibility to them.
With a stirring and pulsating rock score that expresses the emotions of these 19th century characters in a manner that mirrors the modern day adolescent angst of the show's primary audience, Spring Awakening is sure to connect to many of the young theatergoers in attendance. With an energetic and solid cast, this unconventional little musical with a slight identity crisis overcomes its weaknesses to be a winner overall. Spring Awakening continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through January 24, 2010. For tickets, call 513-621-2787. Visit www.springawakening.com for more information on the tour.