Brothers and sisters, we understand nothing. Not the first breath of life, when we emerge, wet and bloody, from the womb; nor the last breath, when our defeated and desiccated bodies give up the ghost; nor all those terrifying and irrational and glorious moments in between, including that brief and eternal transit when, in ecstasy and bliss, we assure our own continuity. So have some compassion for our sad and confused forbearers and forerunners, including those in 1890s Germany, who in their terror and ignorance pretended that sex did not exist.
You can see them now, in sepia-tinted photographs, poker-faced and serious, as all adults were then. Most of them had died before you were born, and those who had not were unwilling to share stories from the days of their youths, when lust infected them like malaria. But Frank Wedekind remembered, and he told a story about it that no one was willing to hear for a hundred years.
Make no mistake about it. Spring Awakening – the play and the musical – is a story about masturbation, homosexuality, abortion, sadism, pedophilia, rape, and – in all its bewildering glory – sex itself, the life force delivered with the power of the Niagara.
Producers approached it as they might a live cobra. The first production was in 1906, fifteen years after it was written; it was not produced in English until eleven years later, and then only after a court issued an injunction against the Commissioner of Licenses for New York City, who sought to ban it as pornographic. Nor did the passage of time dilute its power to terrify the censors; even in 1963, it was produced in London only in censored form.
Blindness, deafness, confusion. In Spring Awakening, sex is only the playing field; the real game is the human compulsion to look the other way – by force of law, if necessary – if something scary comes this way. This was the message of Wedekind’s dialogue – sometimes strident and didactic, as was the writing custom of his time. And this is the brilliance of what lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have done with this hitherto-obscure play: write a blow-out-the-doors rock musical, anthemic and beautiful, with lyrics that are at once perceptive and evocative. By superimposing modern songs, in contemporary idiom (both musical and lyrical) and written from a contemporary point of view, Sater and Sheik have given a modern commentary to an old story, and have put words and insights – our words and insights – into the mouths of young men and women who could not have possibly have had or uttered them.
Keegan Theatre, which did such a magnificent production of Rent two years ago, presents a production which renders every ounce of Spring Awakening’s fabulous intention with truth and pizzazz, and, in the best sense of the word, does justice to the show.
Consider, for example, Ali Hoxie as Wendla Bergman, incredibly sheltered at 15 or so, whose mother (Charlotte Akin, who plays all adult female roles) still tells her that babies are delivered to married couples by the stork. Wendla finds herself drawn sexually to her childhood playmate, the charismatic intellectual Melchior (Vincent Kempski), but does not know what is happening because she is completely unacquainted with the concept of sexually attracted.
When he kisses her (Melchior has done some research on his own), Wendla likes it but doesn’t know why; when he kisses her again she says “wait!” (and you can almost hear the what are you doing?) but he doesn’t wait and neither does she, and when he touches her breast she gives off a sigh of such serious and blissful delight that we can see Melchior has escorted her to a new and magical fairyland. As he completes his amorous ministrations, it is obvious that she has no idea what he is doing and what the consequences are; and when her humiliated mother informs her that she is pregnant Wendla is astonished, as though she had been told she was with child because she scratched her nose. She is not in love with Melchior until this point; her primary aspect has been bewilderment – at herself, at Melchior, at her whole environment. It takes fabulous acting to bring this off, and bold directing to eschew the more commonplace choice of making it appear that Wendla and Melchior fall in love before having sex; Hoxie deserves our respect for making Wendla’s extraordinary progression plausible, and co-directors Mark and Susan Rhea deserve it for making the hard choices which deliver this great musical’s message.
Or consider Paul Scanlan as Moritz Stiefel, a relentlessly ordinary young man hounded by his ambitious father (Jon Townson, who plays all the adult male roles) to excel in a prestigious school. It is obviously beyond Moritz’s capabilities, and his anxieties have turned him into a twitchy mess, who is doubly bedeviled by wet dreams. Scanlan embodies this miserable fellow perfectly, from his bird’s-nest hairstyle (Craig Miller does the hair and makeup) to his sudden, haunted movements.
Moritz reflects instantly-recognizable teenage bravado, singing “Uh huh…uh huh…uh huh…well, fine/Not like it’s even worth the time” when Melchior’s mother refuses to give him a lifesaving loan which would allow him to get a new start in America, and when Ilsa (Nora Palka), a fellow reject, invites him to spend some time with her, he responds “Cause you know,/I don’t do sadness/Not even a little bit./Just don’t need it in my life/ Don’t want any part of it./I don’t do sadness,/Hey I’ve done my time/Looking back on it all/Then it blows my mind.” This bewildering reply remains with us until the next scene, when he does us all a sadness.
Scanlan and Hoxie have wonderful voices. Kempski’s voice is powerful and sufficient, though not quite of their caliber. He does, however, deliver a rich and satisfying performance as Melchior, a smart and generous man-child – an old soul in a young body – who is resolved to lead his generation, and his society, out of the prison in which it has placed itself. He knows what the real stakes are: that his social order demands unthinking obedience not just in matters of sex but in all things. “All they say/Is ‘Trust in What is Written,’” Melchior sings. “Wars are made/And somehow that is wisdom/Thought is suspect/And money is their idol/And nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their Bible.” I bought Kempski as this young man, rich in self-confidence among his peers, and still struggling and questing in his own thoughts.
In addition to excellent leads, Keegan’s Spring Awakening also benefits from a terrific performance by a strong ensemble. I was particularly impressed by Gannon O’Brien and Alex Alferov as Hanschen and Ernst, a young gay couple who understand that no revolution in their lifetime will sanction their love. They respond with an exceptionally witty reprise of “The Word of Your Body,” (which, earlier in the musical, was used by heterosexual characters to pledge their respect to their own body’s yearnings), in which Hanschen in particular pledges to get over on the man. Alferov has a high and pure tenor, and much like the voice of Gideon Glick in the original cast album, it could be mistaken by an unsophisticated listener (like me) as an alto. Heard as such, there are several confusing lines in the song, but seen in person – and particularly with the lines delivered with the comic flair O’Brien gives them – the same lines are laugh-out-loud funny.
This is a music-heavy piece (Sater has adapted, and considerably slenderized, Wedekind’s play as the book) and its success is in large part due to an excellent 10-piece orchestra (Alex Aucoin, Jason Wilson, Rob Weaver, Nicholas Perry, Jaime Ibracache, Ben Young, Mike Kozemchak, Seth Buchsbaum, Johnny Wash and conductor Jake Null). Nothing better encapsulates the story than the eleven o’clock song, “Totally Fucked.” Coming at the moment that Melchior realizes that an honest and well-researched report on human sexuality which he wrote for Moritz to help him understand his dreams is about to cost him his future, “Totally Fucked” is profound cathartic release, when the cast – and audience – understands that they are living in a land of make-believe, where truth, fair play, and all the ostensible values of a free society are ruthlessly bent or destroyed to make way for whatever results those who are in power wish.
Kurt Boehm’s choreography – excellent throughout – reaches its apotheosis here; the cast dissolving into an ecstasy of head-banging and somersaults, as if the young men and women have given up any hope of sense, order or understanding in their world. (And do not underestimate the difficulty of this choreography on Keegan’s tiny stage). Understanding this to be the song’s power and effect, the crucial lines are not the titular vulgarity but the chorus: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah/Blah blah blah blah blah.”
Equate sex with love? Blah blah blah blah. Strive for a foreign policy which reflects moral responsibility? Blah blah blah. Assure fairness in your criminal justice system? Blah blah blah blah blah. And so this nation blithely, or blahthley, goes, until it has launched a calamitous war, and then committed the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.
Spring Awakening has played on Broadway and in the Kennedy Center, but it is better to see it in this intimate setting, where you can see the pain and bewilderment on the faces of these excellent young actors. We have become considerably more candid about sex (though not completely so), but the musical remains moving because we evade, or lie about, so many other subjects.
What about our colossal national debt, which may threaten our sovereignty? Or the catastrophic effect that the aging of the baby boomers will have on Medicare? Or the effects of global warming? Or blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah? Blah blah blah blah blah?
Keegan Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening runs thru July 8, 2012 at Church Street Theatre, 1742 Church Street, NW Washington, DC.
Adapted from a play of the same name by Frank Wedekind
Book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Mark A. and Susan Marie Rhea
Choreography by Kurt Boehm, Assistant Director
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
- Rebecca Maynard . BroadwayWorld
- Celia Wren . Washington Post
- Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
- Chris Heller . MetroWeekly
- Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Winnefred Ann Frolik . MDTheatreGuide
Julia L. Exline . DCMetroTheatreArts
Ali Goldstein . BrightestYoungThings
- Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadioot