Forget the cute marketing advertisements with a free-spirited young couple locked in a sweet embrace with the caption, “You’ll never forget your first time.” Those of us who have seen the show multiple times can attest to Awakening‘s tough thematic content and the dark, somber reality of abuse, death, and fragile emotional breaking points just a heart beat away from a fatal snap.
Parts of the show are actually painful to watch. So why do we keep coming back for more? The songs like the story are compressed and cover a limited range but each one has a seething raw and often raucous emotional impact and while not melodious, have a haunting, hypnotic effect. The lyrics, like the story, are intense, and again, condensed, packing generations of hurt and baggage into incredibly beautiful phrases that will blow your mind. Wrap all that in a
rock score that bursts through the dark veneer with orgasmic intensity, and you’ll see why the thing swept the Tony Awards in 2007.
To call the main couple star-crossed wouldn’t do the situation justice. The entire community is steeped in repression, is shame-based, and conformist, a volatile combination for a free-thinking, even (gasp) agnostic lad, Melchoir, who refuses to accept the status quo no matter what the consequences. Sex to him is an unemotional, clinical, bare-bottom, two-minute deal that can be depicted in a journal as easily as a how-to-manual, that is, until he meets his true love.
Wendla, played by Christy Altomare who has the voice of an angel is a work unto herself. Her feelings are so repressed that she yearns to be beaten just for the thrill of feeling something. This is certainly not Romeo and Juliet territory. Quite the contrary. Where’s Freud when you need him? Besides, nothing could help these kids out of this uber-strict land of the tight-laced lost. Nothing, that is, but a little heavy head banging rock every once in awhile.
I’m convinced that’s the magic of the piece– the startling juxtaposition of the all the bleak, somber, lock step regimentation, that busts loose in wild frenetic hedonism every once and awhile. No one can resist the downbeat, or as the Borg would say (nod to trekkie fans), resistance is futile. The criminally strict headmaster, his obsequious, almost fawning frauline accomplice, have at it in those precious moments of all hell done broke loose in a hellacious blast of a funk-based electric guitar and drums. The students dance like spirits possessed on a mission to rock, flailing the air with abandon, apoplectic with sudden physical freedom where they whirl in singularity, each in their own delirious world. Then just as suddenly as it started, it all stops and the dark somber reality snaps everybody to attention again. It’s really quite remarkable, and rather irresistible judging from the legions of multigenerational fans that continue to rediscover their own awakenings on return visits.
Once the characters return to the dark and dreary nights of their true reality, they live out their respective fates either with blind obedience, timid acquiesce, or rebellious streaks of fearful resistance. Wild haired Moritz is notorious for being a slaggard, pre-dating the term by generations but faithful to its true meaning. Despite his exquisite conjugation of Latin verbs, he still doesn’t cut it academically and pays the ultimate price. His best friend Melchior gets sucked into the hellish turmoil, and his dalliance with Wendla does not end prettily. Nothing is tied up in a neat little bow in Spring Awakening; the show deals with hard core societal ills and doesn’t sugar coat a damn thing. It serves it straight up, with no chaser, so, like recent headlines in a metro paper, it’s not for the squeamish. For example, the bottom’s up sexual thrusts that end the first act start right up again to open the second act, in case you needed a second look to make sure what copulation means.
A musical is only as good as its music and its singers, and all in all, they deliver. The songs (music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater), have a simplistic, even minimalist note range, tight harmonies and heart-breaking lyrics, and include “Mama Who Bore Me,” the mesmerizing wonder ” I Believe,” and the show stopping finale, ” The Song of Purple Summer.” Besides, what’s not to love about a rock-banging number entitled,” The Bitch of Living” and another one with censored headlines.
The troupe is surprisingly young to be able to handle the exhausting yet invigorating material. Except for the two middle aged characters, Angela Reed and Henry Stram who do wonders in portraying all the older roles -parents, teachers, headmasters, etc — the rest of the ensemble could be escapees from High School Musical, just out of college or musical conservatories, but they rise and shine here. Blake Bashoff as Moritz made his Broadway debut in this role and we are fortunate to the depths of our being that he is reprising it here. He hits the boards like nobody’s business and captures the very essence of his character while belting out his songs with joyous vocals and tremendous appeal. Jake Epstein on the other hand, while being a fine character actor who relays Melchior’s conflicted emotional turmoil, has a rather mild vocal approach that doesn’t reflect his character’s fierce mood or intensity. Still, he comes across as a trusted ally with unending loyalty to the bitter end and his unwavering commitment carries him through. Sarah Hunt as Martha sings the haunting “The Dark I Know Well” with clear-eyed pragmatism in survival mode despite lyrics that hint at incestial abuse. It’s all quite stunning.
The masterful direction by Michael Mayer reflects the writer’s premise that everything occurs out in the open, including tender passages of first love. In fact, the characters never leave the stage, and even upon exiting, each returns to bleachers set up on stage right and left, where some of the audience are also seated. This staging reinforces the sense that we are all in this community together, sharing the same God fearing, none but the righteous and lots of smiting everybody else, mentality.
The creative design team contributed heavily to the production’s effectiveness and success. Bill T. Jones’s minimalist, spastic, ADHD-style choreography, which won the Tony’s, relies heavily on basic combinations of torso and arm movements repeated compulsively and convulsively with increasingly frenetic fervor.
On the whole, the band maintained a good volume level that complemented the vocalists,for a change, instead of competed with them. Award winning costume designer Susan Hilferty has national prominence and it shows.
Finally, a special nod goes to the lighting, designed by Kevin Adams that took on a life of its own. Hues of red glowed with hell fire intensity only to be followed by soothing cool colors on perfect cue. The lighting also depicted the rosy cheeked living who were flanked by the ghastly ashen visage of the dearly departed, side by side with amazing effect.
The musical is based on a censored and often banned 19th century German play by Frank Wedekind. Spring Awakening scratches below the surface of the Western world’s cultural topography and strikes old nerves where ancient anxieties and emotional wounds run deep as the ages, and as such, the musical creators have hit a universal primeval chord. We all share aspects of Spring Awakening, and the show is well worth a visit to appreciate this depiction of our own cultural extended family tree.
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreography by Bill T. Jones
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.