The much-heralded musical Spring Awakening opened this Tuesday at the Fox, allowing St. Louis audiences to see what the fuss (including 11 Tony nominations and 8 wins) is all about. I understand its appeal but am also cognizant of its shortcomings, which are not insignificant.
Cast of Spring Awakening
The musical is loosely based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 drama of the same name, which was so shocking in its day that it was repeatedly censored and banned. The story concerns a group of young teenagers who are experiencing their first sexual feelings; the original play not only deals with topics then considered offensive (masturbation, rape, abortion, homosexuality) but was a rousing condemnation of contemporary German society. In adapting Wedekind's play, Steven Sater tones it down considerably: masturbation and homosexuality are both played for laughs and rape has become consensual sex. As if in compensation, he adds a note of parental sexual abuse which has the advantage of bringing up a serious subject without saddling one of the handsome young leads with such unattractive behavior. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect audiences to sympathize with a rapist.
The strong point of this show is how clearly it understands, and portrays, the tumultuous emotions of teenagers (Melchior, one of the male leads, is identified as being 15). These characters are at the age when their hormones are bursting, every experience seems to be a matter of life and death, and they're sure no one else has ever felt the way that they do. Meanwhile, the adults in their lives are clueless at best and malicious at worst, depriving them of basic knowledge while blaming them for the consequences of their ignorance. Their feelings are conveyed primarily through Duncan Sheik's songs, an effective blend of pop and rock styles sung to the accompaniment of an on-stage combo. All the lead voices are strong, with Christy Altomare (Wendla), Blake Bashoff (Moritz) and Steffi D (Ilse) being particular standouts. The ensemble is also excellent, and the overall sound quality is better than that achieved by many touring shows at the Fox.
Dramatic cohesion is the weak element of Spring Awakening, particularly in the second half when events rush by so rapidly they hardly have a chance to register with the audience. The characterization is not particularly deep, either, which seems to be a fault of the script more than the actors: the roles are more like illustrations of different aspects of teenage angst than real characters. The fact that most of the actors appear to be 5-10 years older than the roles they play may be a practical necessity (union rules aside, it would be impractical to cast a show with boys whose voices were actually breaking) but it is disconcerting to see adult men in knee pants impersonating young teenagers.
More troubling is the show's odd unevenness of tone: the alternation between deadly serious events, raw young emotions and sitcom laughs is disconcerting. Is it really necessary to play the adult characters so broadly? Having a single actor and actress play all the adult roles automatically de-personalizes the characters, but this production turns them into caricatures. Whose idea was it to make Moritz look like Eraserhead? The boys' silly hair styles (except for Melchior) make it easier to tell them apart, but also make it difficult to take their problems seriously. Are we really meant to laugh at Wendla's confusion when she asks Melchior to beat her, bearing in mind that she has just learned that one of her friends is beaten nightly by her father and sexually abused as well? The opening-night audience certainly thought this was a comic scene, and in fairness theirs was a reasonable reaction to the scene as presented by the actors.
This is a show which works best if you just let the experience wash over without thinking too hard about the details. The authors got several big things right, most importantly their decision to abandon any sense of naturalism. Many different devices are used to this end. Some of the audience is seated on the stage and the actors sit among them, rising up from their chairs when it's time to perform. The set is a three-sided brick wall covered with Dali-esque symbolsa dreamlike painting of a white horse, an enormous blue butterfly wing, a boy's school uniform in a coffin-like box, and grim ancestral portraits. Most of the action takes place on a bare stage, with performers carrying chairs and other furniture on and off as required. The lighting design is highly expressive, and rock lighting effects are used frequently.
Most significantly, these 19th-century schoolboys and girls regularly pull microphones out of their clothing and sing indy-rock ballads and anthems while dancing in various styles, including everyone's favorite 1980s throwback, voguing. It's a brilliant solution to the oft-stated objection that people simply don't spontaneously burst into song and dance: by ignoring superficial realism in favor of psychological truth, Spring Awakening delivers the emotional impact of the songs while also making a statement about the timelessness of the characters' feelings. For that reason, the show should hold particular appeal for teenagers, since they will be familiar with the characters' concerns and with the musical idioms as well.
Spring Awakening will run at the Fox Theatre through February 22, 2009. Tickets may be purchased in person at the Fox Box Office or by phone or internet from MetroTix, 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com.