The press kit for Spring Awakening, the Tony award-winning 2007 rock musical whose road-show version is playing through Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Seattle Paramount, contained an article from Huffington Post by Jerry Weinstein. In it, the author compares current politics, particularly the Sarah Palin phenomena, with the lives of the angst-ridden, repressed, hormonally sexed-up, confused, and naïve teenagers of the Frank Wedekind play. That these young people live in the uptight bourgeois world of an 1891 German town matters not, for here we are still arguing many of the same questions raised in a play written over 100 years ago.
The confusion and conflicts of youth, and the battle of the generations, are by now clichés in Western culture. TV is filled with sitcoms and reality shows that document it, as do innumerable films from Rebel Without a Cause to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the recent Juno. Teen angst done well sells well. Parents are always without a clue, children are forever driven by their biological time bombs.
Spring Awakening is the creation of Steven Sater, books and lyrics, with music by Duncan Sheik. Sater had the vision to take the caustic original play by Wedekind and turn it into a musical. As a work of musical theater it breaks no real new ground, but is rather a compilation, an astute homage to the many like-minded works that have gone before it, such as West Side Story. The story tells of teen-age students coming of age in the stultifying and strait-laced atmosphere of fin-de-siecle Germany. They are harshly ruled by their parents, their teachers, and their religious leaders, all played by two fine actors, Angela Reed and Henry Stram. The main young characters are the intellectual dreamer and seducer Melchior (Kyle Riabko), virginal and curious Wendla (Christy Altomare), and clueless Moritz (Blake Bashoff).
The show begins with humor, deriving from our recognition of the stock characters of youth – the confused, the innocent, the curious, the hormonally rampant. As the evening unfolds, drama grows and tragedy ensues.
Those of us in the audience old enough to be parents are reminded to listen to our children, to nurture them through the mysteries of growing up, to understand differences, to give young people the information and advice they need to help make choices, to support them when they’ve screwed up. But this is really a young theatregoers’ musical. The questions and situations are theirs. Though the kids are 19th century, their songs are pure 21st. They pull hand mics out of their uniforms and jumpers, sing plaintive ballads and raucous x-rated vocals with a fine rock band live on-stage. There are exceptional movement sequences and a gestural language contributed by the show’s choreographer, Bill. T Jones. On stage right and left are bleachers filled with young audience members where the artists also perch during breaks.
There is heterosexual love, homosexual love, self-love, pregnancy, death, and betrayal. There is also melodrama, which all too often takes the place of a dramatic intensity that would allow the audience to experience what is happening on stage more authentically. Likewise, the lighting, by Kevin Adams, which is meant to illuminate the raw emotions on display, is inventive at first but grows tiresome over the evening with too many over-the-top punctuations of the storyline.
The ensemble of fine young actors/singer/movers performs this material lovingly and very well. The lyrics in the songs are trenchant, raucous, sometimes lovely — but the music is mostly forgettable and over the course of the evening begins to sound the same and loses its punch. Call me retro, but I’d still like to leave the theater humming a tune that I can remember the next day. That said, Spring Awakening is an attractive and lively portrait that leaps across the centuries.
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