Last night I caught the first national tour of Spring Awakening, the surprise Broadway hit musical that took home eight Tonys in 2007.
Based on Frank Wedekind‘s seminal 19th century play of the same name (Frühlings Erwachen in German, which I also read a decade ago as a former German major), Spring Awakening is a unique theatrical experience. Wedekind’s play criticized the dominant sexually repressive culture of the time by exploring the sexual awakening, or adolescence, of teens. The musical uses contemporary music (a mellow, alternative score by Duncan Sheik) and dance to contextualize the inner turmoils of these hormonal teens.
Spring Awakening shares many similarities with another show based on a piece of 19th century German literature: Shockheaded Peter. However, instead of cautionary tales geared for naive children to scare them in place as was the charm of Shockheaded Peter, Spring Awakening consists of morality tales for parents, warning them of the horrid things that can happen to their children should they keep them in the dark concerning matters of sex and maturity. For example: Suicide, abortions, an affinity for S&M, reform school.
It was a shocking theme and message for late 18th and early 19th century audiences, and it’s no wonder Wedekind’s play was banned from performance. And, much like in Shockheaded Peter, Spring Awakening tells these tales in a highly stylized way. Composer Sheik, choreographer Bill T. Jones and director Micheal Mayer create a deeply earnest and original environment that brings relevence and artistry into the spotlight.
However, I was left mostly cold.
Why is this? I guess the piecemeal interludes between the male and female teenagers didn’t really capture me emotionally or intellectually. However, Sheik’s haunting score helped with this at points – particularly the beautiful final number. The majority of the audience seemed to love it, but I couldn’t help but think that they mostly enjoyed the titillation of seeing breasts, masturbation, bare bottoms and men kissing performed on a legitimate stage.
However, this was too much for some. A group of women in front of us left at intermission, audibly saying, “I’m uncomfortable with this. Let’s go.”
Wedekind would be disappointed that 118 years later we still treat sex with disgust.
The young ensemble cast is very talented. Great voices — particularly Steffi D as Isle. Fitting, as she was a finalist on Canadian Idol. In the leads, Christy Altomare as Wendla and Jake Epstein as Melchior give understated, touching performances — if a bit on the bland side. The Oriental isn’t the most fitting venue for this intimate show, but it seemed to fill out the space well enough.
The tour plays through August 16 at Ford Center/Oriental Theatre. More information here.