Based upon Frank Wedekind's play and set in the 1890s within a German town, the erotic show speaks to and for adolescents. Designer Christine Jones creates the environment of repressive school as the teenagers, wearing stiff clothing furnished by costumer Susan Hilferty, are dealing with parents and teachers whose purpose, it seems, is to constrict and restrict the kids. No wonder, then, that the rock 'n' roll musical draws a quick and lasting focus upon sexuality.
Actor Jake Epstein plays the strapping, good-looking Melchior, who is driven with passion. His sweet tenor is evident in "Left Behind." Wendla (Christy Altomare) cannot resist him; she is curious, bright, but far from wordly-wise. Altomare, a soprano, appeals to the audience with the opening number of the evening, "Mama Who Bore Me." Her plaintive rendering of "Whispering," late in the performance, is another highlight. Taylor Trensch, with the wild, strange but eye-catching hair, plays Moritz. Conflicted and beset with anxiety, the torn-asunder Moritz questions the value of life. He must make a choice.
Steven Sater wrote the book and lyrics and Duncan Sheik the music for Spring Awakening. Some of the varied tunes sometimes burst with aggression and pulse while others are more linear. The teens are, to understate, disaffected. Musicians, performing at the rear of the stage and backed up nearly to a huge floor-to-ceiling wall, add depth and energy.
Bill T. Jones' choreography is striking when it is most frenetic. The guitarist and percussionist play behind the actors as they inhabit a group of young people who will not conform. Kevin Adams' lighting choices (red, blue ...) are literally brilliant. Director Michael Mayer is catalytic since it is he who prods the actors who, in turn, push the play forward.
The play addresses suicide; abortion due to unplanned pregnancy; and an abusive situation. It does not feel heavy handed. Rather, there's an intimate atmosphere. That is due, in part, to the wise, artistic decision to welcome attending theatergoers who are able to sit on each side of the stage beside some of the actors.
The cast is uniformly strong, featuring the leads and supported by many others including Angela Reed and John Wojda who play grown-ups. Spring Awakening delves into darkness but not without moments of hope and possibility. Thematically, tensions between young people who yearn for freedom and authoritarian adults recur within each and every generation.
The musical numbers are strong if not memorable. Both the music director, Jared Stein, and music supervisor, Kimberly Grigsby, deserve considerable credit.
One enters the theater to discover a scenic design which is simultaneously open and eye-catching. It is simple and spare but so distinctive. Lovely agony follows.
Spring Awakening continues at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through February 28th. For tickets, visit www.bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900. This company then proceeds to Durham, North Carolina.
- Fred Sokol