Friday, August 7, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Spring Awakening

If I told you that Spring Awakening would bring back the feelings of being 15, you might not think of it as an endorsement. After all what with the raging hormones and general misery, who'd want to be 15 again? Well trust me, you do. Spring Awakening takes one of the worst times of life and transform it into an exciting, frequently thrilling piece of theatre.

Composer Duncan Sheik, bookwriter/lyricist Steven Sater, and director Michael Mayer have adapted Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play about the danger of sexual repression into a rock musical. German Expressionism and rock music (and the real thing, by the way, not the watered-down pop that so often passes for rock on Broadway) might seem like an uneasy mixture, but it works remarkably well. After all, what frustrated teen hasn't wanted to pull out a microphone and sing about their pain?

Melchior (Jake Epstein), Moritz (Blake Bashoff), and Wendla (Christy Altomare) are teens in a provincial German town, stifled by authority at home, at school, and in church. Honest discussion of sexuality is so nonexistent that Wendla still doesn't know how babies are made. But the restless, throbbing energy in their bodies--and their songs--won't be denied, and the consequences are tragic.

Teen angst is a subject well-covered in popular culture, but the brilliance of the play and Mayer's staging is the immediacy with which it is presented. Watching actual ranting teens for over two hours would be torture, but the show takes you inside their minds and bodies in a terrifyingly intimate way.

Which is not to say the play is without flaws. Listening to the album, it's impossible to miss the many tortured rhymes--"Thought is suspect and money is their idol/And nothing is okay unless it's scripted in their bible" is only one of dozens--and many of the characters are underwritten to the point of incoherence. It's easy to find the problems, but in this production, they just don't matter much. The best songs reach right off the stage and shake you up, and all of them are fascinating to watch.

Mayer's dynamic staging benefits immensely from the work of the rest of the creative team. Bill T. Jones' choreography is full of choppy, isolated movements which crystallize how alienated these teens are from their own rapidly changing bodies. Kevin Adams' lighting is simply jaw-dropping--he uses a huge number of instruments to create a dazzling array of looks. The extremes might look overblown in another play, but in this one they are stunning.

The production has inevitably lost some power on tour, but it's the fault of the venue. What was overwhelming in a 1,000 seat theatre in New York sometimes fails to fill the Oriental, at least twice the size. Moments are blunted in their effect, and the emotions sometimes feel remote.

The entire cast gives confident, powerful performances--they sing with great passion and skill and they make the characters believable and sympathetic. I found Bashoff, as the bizarre, tortured Moritz, particularly fascinating. I was also terribly amused by Andy Mientus (looking a bit like Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies) as Hanschen, the magnetically creepy gay seducer--who also has what may be the funniest and creepiest masturbation scene of the contemporary stage.

The play has real flaws and the production may not always live up to its full power, this is true. But Spring Awakening is an extraordinarily exciting show, and you really should go see it before it's too late.

Spring Awakening plays through August 16th at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph Street in Chicago. Tickets and information by calling (800) 775-2000, clicking, or visiting the box office.

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