It’s hard to watch something you love suffer.
In this case, it is the 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Spring Awakening, featuring a sumptuous indie-rock score from Duncan Sheik and poetry slam-bam lyrics by Steven Sater that prove rock musicals don’t have to be generic jukebox revues. They can shimmer with young, hungry sexual heat, substance and authenticity.
If I were decades younger I would have been one of The Guilty Ones, the Spring Awakening fan club full of teenage devotees, but in my dotage I have to content myself with wearing out CDs of the original Broadway cast recording.
You can see why Olney Theatre Center would not want to do a cookie cutter version of the Broadway musical and to his credit, director Steve Cosson does bring Spring Awakening to an unexpected place. However, aside from Christopher Youstra’s glistening orchestrations and a predominately young cast brimming with talent and promise, Mr. Cosson takes Spring Awakening to a place where you really don’t want to go.
Adolescent angst and squirminess infuse Spring Awakening, which seems completely of the moment but actually is based on a once-banned 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy,” the expressionistic work portrays the ways in which a repressive culture can stifle and snuff out youthful spirit. Considered shocking in its day, Spring Awakening addresses the sadly common modern problems of incest, abuse, suicide, bullying, abortion, teen sexuality and masturbation.
Mr. Sheik’s astonishing music — ranging from trancelike ballads to driving, almost religious rock anthems — provides an amped up emotional outlet for expressing the tumult of puberty and sexual budding among a group of provincial youths.
Disheveled worrywart Moritz (a heartbreakingly tormented Parker Drown) is so disturbed by his nocturnal fantasies and the pressures of exams and pleasing his overbearing father that he sinks into twitchy despair, as seen in the powder-keg songs “The Bitch of Living” and “And Then There Were None.”
The rules-breaking, authority-questioning scholar Melchior (Matthew Kacergis, achingly ardent and intense) is more textbook-experienced in sexual matters, and he’s desperate to put his knowledge into practice with the almost criminally innocent Wendla (Alyse Alan Louis, radiating vulnerability and natural curiosity), a schoolgirl whose mother willfully keeps her in the dark about the facts of life.
Sexuality is expressed as discovery and rebellion, but also as release — with Hanschen (Austin VanDyke Colby, an insouciant, confident seducer of fellow students) self-pleasuring in the song “My Junk” to the meter of Desdemona’s death scene from “Othello” — or as a means of control, as Martha (an affecting Marylee Adams) relates in “The Dark I Know Well,” which Miss Adams delivers with scruffy intensity. Experimentation is even depicted, with an awkward attempt at S&M and, later, same-sex canoodling (“The Word of Your Body”).
Unfortunately, this gifted cast is saddled with a concept that is broad and brassily obvious. The actors mime every lyric of the songs until you think you are witnessing some unseemly game of Charades—so often are they asked to simulate masturbation, self-caressing, writhing in sexual frenzy and pulling their drawers up and down. It doesn’t help matters much that the female characters are decked out in kinder-whore costumes that turn them into a bunch of Lolitas instead of innocent girls stumbling through their first sexual feelings.
Closes March 10, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Even when the characters are not indulging in onanistic behavior, they still keep to the theme of why do when you can overdo. All the tender nuances and powerful emotional flashes are drowned out by such excessive touches as having Moritz’s father (Ethan Watermeier, hamming it up in a variety of adult roles) lurching away from a graveyard like a monster from a B-movie and having two of the main characters crawl out of the crypt as if extras in an episode of “Zombie Apocalypse.”
What about the distraught Moritz waving a prop gun so ludicrously large you expect a flag to pop out imprinted with the word “BANG!” You could go on and on about the wacky excesses of this production—the disconcerting Vegas-style prosceniums of cheesy neon lights that punctuate every song, for example. It’s one thing for a director to put his own bold stamp on a show. It is quite another to squash its spirit.
Spring Awakening . Music by Duncan Sheik . Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater . Directed by Steve Cosson . Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra . Choreography by Sam Pinkleton . Featuring Alyse Alan Louis, Maggie Donnelly, MaryLee Adams, Dayna Marie Quincy, Gracie Jones, Matthew Kacergis, Parker Drown, Austin VanDyke Colby, David Landstrom, Chris Rudy, Christopher Mueller, Ethan Watermeier, Liz Mamana, Samuel Edgerly, Ali Hoxie, Katie McCreary, Tim Rogan. Creating team: Scenic Designer: Adrian Jones, Costume Designer: Sarah Beers, Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel, Sound Designer: Will Pickens. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.