Theater review: ‘Spring Awakening’

Every generation has one – that big Broadway musical that tells the story of who you are. For my generation, those of us who grew up in the 1960s, it was Hair (although even in high school I wished for a show that wasn’t quite so dopey). For those who came up in the ‘90s, that musical was Rent. And for those who are hitting their stride now, it’s Spring Awakening, a remarkable show that understands exactly what it is to be young and alienated and yearning for something more.

With its frank sexuality and its rock score, Spring Awakening is sure to turn off some conservative audiences. As for me – well, I wish my generation had been lucky enough to claim this one as our own.

Start with the source material, a drama by the same name by 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind, which – written as it was in 1891 – is amazing in its candor. Move on to the catchy rock/pop score, and then on again to director Michael Mayer’s startling staging, which puts theatergoers sitting onstage among the cast members and makes broad connections between the sexual repression of 19th-century bourgeois Germany and of America today.

Spring Awakening’s adults are mostly awful, certainly, but Mayer exaggerates their awfulness for comic effect. And when the show’s teenagers have something to say, they pull out hand-held microphones and let loose – getting the message out, in full rock-star mode, the only way they know how.

You can tell everything about these kids by looking at them, from their buttoned-up garb (short pants on the boys, tight pigtails on the girls) to the open, rebellious ways they move and the crazy permutations of the boys’ hair. (Moritz, the saddest of the boys, has a head full of sleepy curls at the top of the show but turns spikier the more disaffected he becomes.)

More than that, though, you feel what they feel. Grownups have abused, disappointed and confounded them. Life is a mystery to them. But their longing to learn about it and to feel it is palpable.

The show looks and sounds just as good on tour (except for the fact that the actors may be a lot farther away: Bob Carr is nearly two and a half times larger than Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where Spring Awakening started out). The eight-member band (drums, guitar, keyboards and strings) is still seated behind the performers, and the nearly bare stage is still dominated by dark, towering brick walls and by Kevin Adams’s ominous, atmospheric lighting design.

And the actors, most of them cast from college theater programs, still look nearly young enough to pass for Wedekind’s disaffected teenagers. As Wendla, whose mother expects her to believe that babies are delivered by the stork, Christy Altomare is especially girlish and beautifully uncertain; Wendla’s friends (Sarah Hunt, Gabrielle Garza and Kimiko Glenn) are both childlike and fierce, and Steffi D (right) is lovely as the bohemian Ilse, who fled a sexually abusive home.

The boys, too, walk that fine line between childhood and adulthood: Taylor Trensch is fine as sad-sack Moritz, Robert Hager is very funny as the seductive Hanschen, and Jake Epstein, although he looks a bit too old, makes a powerful Melchior, the boy who is done in by his own intelligence and strength.

Angela Reed and John Wojda apply a light touch to the two adult figures, who play everyone from Melchior’s understanding mother to a couple of prototypically stupid schoolteachers. And my new goal in life is to come back as one of the four ensemble members who get to sit among the audience onstage and sing this rousing score.

It’s hard not to tap your feet to Sheik’s pounding music (or to jump up and down, as Bill T. Jones’s choreography so often has the actors doing). And it’s hard not to want to shout out Sater’s lyrics, which state everything as baldly as kids are wont to do:

It’s the bitch of living
And trying to get ahead
It’s the bitch of living
Just getting out of bed
It’s the bitch of living
And getting what you get
It’s the bitch of living

Those are not the kinds of lyrics that will please everybody; neither will the masturbation sequence, or the song called “Totally Fucked” (although that’s a perfect description of Melchior’s condition). But that kind of starkness gets at the desperation of these kids, whose frustrations and clumsy searching are only heightened by the repression of their time. Maybe you’re not the right age for Spring Awakening. But you once were – remember how it felt?

‘Spring Awakening’
What: Touring production of Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik musical, based on the play by Frank Wedekind.
Where: Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. today-Friday May 19-21, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday May 22, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday May 23.
Cost: $25-$69.
Call: 1-800-982-2787.

5 responses to “Theater review: ‘Spring Awakening’

  1. This is a really great review, especially how you start with the “each genration thing”. You are so right. In sorting out what few musicals appeal to me, this is the best way to explain it…if it is THAT generational musical that GOES THERE …odds are it will be on my lists of musicals I like.
    Hair was a before my generational time, RENT was a tad post it. (tho I love the two -best of all musicals) however, right now in my life I have a 15 year old son who has a very serious 14 year old girl friend so this spoke to me for sure. 🙂

  2. Gordon Goede

    Superb Review, Elizabeth! Beautifully written.

  3. Spring Awakening was a good show with some great parts, but I admit I’m still reving off the rpm’s of “In the Heights” which was an Amazing production! The SA cast was talented enough, music was very good and a thought provoking script. Too bad the house had so many empty seats on opening night. Maybe the Magic game scared some patrons away. Looking forward to our next visit to Bob Carr!

  4. Steve Alcorn

    I think Spring Awakening does a great job of appealing to many generations, at least those under 60. My wife and I are you age, and it’s one of our favorite shows, but also one of our daughter’s favorites, too. Having seen it from the front row on Broadway and from the second balcony in Tampa, I will say that it plays very differently in a large theater. I’m interested to see what it’s like at the Bob Carr.

  5. Enjoyed the show. Love the material and the cast did a nice job. This show definitely had the best audio of any show I’ve seen at Bob Carr. Kudos to the person who designed the system and those who mixed the performance.