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'Spring Awakening' – Intense sexuality but not quite Wicked

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2007 Tony Award winner

'Spring Awakening' – Intense sexuality but not quite Wicked

Large dollops of grunge, rock, folk & pop balladry

  • Elizabeth Judd and Christopher Wood in 'Spring Awakening.'
    Andy SnowElizabeth Judd and Christopher Wood in 'Spring Awakening.'
  • Coby Getzug, Christopher Wood and Elizabeth Judd
    Andy SnowCoby Getzug, Christopher Wood and Elizabeth Judd
  • Andy Snow

Teenage angst and sexuality are in a no-win battle with adult righteousness and authoritarianism in the musical, “Spring Awakening.” The brash indie-rock-infused production conjures “Hair” meets Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

To underscore the timelessness of this struggle, the show is set in late 19th century Germany, based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind on the same themes. Then as now, the maddening perennial wash of adolescent hormones drives young people increasingly in search of answers and experience. The consequences of that search form the arc of the story.

The original Broadway production took home eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical, Direction (Michael Mayer), Choreography (Bill T. Jones), Lighting Design (Kevin Adams), Book (Steven Sater) Score and Orchestration (singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik). What’s missing for this national touring company production is the original cast, including Best Featured Actor winner John Gallagher, Jr.

The young, non-equity touring cast here works hard, sings and dances harder, but never quite achieves the overwhelming climax that some of its characters simulate on stage.

The story centers on Melchior (Christopher Wood) and Wendla (Elizabeth Judd) as star-crossed lovers and/or normal horny teens. They endure repression and rebukes in their quest to understand and satisfy their growing sexual, emotional and intellectual curiosity. They are blocked and punished by a society that can not articulate or justify its rules, but nevertheless, enforces them ruthlessly. To de-personify this authoritarian environment, the various adult roles – mothers, fathers, dictatorial school master, busty piano teacher, etc. – are all played by the same two actors (Sarah Kleeman and Mark Poppleton).  

Among Melchior and Wendla’s classmates and fellow-angsters are Mortiz (Coby Getzug), Hanschen (Devon Stone), Martha (Aliya Bowles) and Ilse (Courtney Markowitz). Moritz, already twitchy from unbidden erotic dreams that make him worry he is crazy, is eventually driven to suicide by failure at school. Hanschen enjoys the best big-production masturbation scene outside of Ricky Gervais’ recent Golden Globe Awards presentation. Martha confesses that her father sadomasochistically beats her. Ilse provides counterpoint as the winsome girl who has drifted off to an artists colony where she is finding plenty of experience, thank you very much, but few answers.

The prudish should be forewarned that sex is a large part of “Spring Awakening,” at a higher and more intense level than most stage dramas. However, the explicitness is no more than you would normally find on basic cable TV without premium channels. Act I ends and Act II reprises a bare breasted seduction scene and dropped-trou simulated-sex between Melchior and Wendla. This is after a woodland encounter where the two explore S/M as Wendla seeks to understand Martha’s pain and Melchi works out his own issues. Henschen kisses a fellow male student. There is a simulated group masturbation scene among the boys.

All this is firmly punctuated by lots of fun and energetic music. Understand that the score is within the bounds of Broadway musical style, but still has large dollops of grunge, rock, folk and especially pop balladry. The songs effectively contemporize the story, pulling us out of the 19th Century and into the 21st.

The boys in their knickers sing and dance angry on their chairs at school (“The Bitch of Living”). The girls in their summer dresses frolic and sing in the fields (“Mama Who Bore Me”). The ballad arrangements feature more acoustic guitar than even Arizona Theatre Company’s recent folksinger tribute, “Woody Guthrie: An American Song.”

Falsely blamed for Moritz’s suicide, Woods leads the full-cast in the show’s peak moment, “Totally Fucked.” Also of special note is Markowitz in the emotional “Blue Wind.” Other songs include “My Junk,” “Touch Me,” “The Word of Your Body,” and “The Dark I Know Well.”

In the end, the main problem that keeps this production of “Spring Awakening” from being totally satisfying is overall execution by its young cast.

The singing is good but sometimes when they hit their pitch, they lack full-bodied tone. The choreography is carried off, but you can sometimes feel them counting their steps rather than going for reckless abandon in the rock numbers. Most of the cast are recently out of college or as young as eighteen. If this were a graduate student university production, they would all deserve A’s. However, for a national touring company, the bar is deservedly set a little higher.

The overall story arc here is also an uphill battle for a musical, deliberately starting off small and building slow. The first full-production number doesn’t come until midway through the first act. It peaks again in the middle of Act II with “Totally Fucked,” but then recedes back to a small, dark place. The final number, “The Song of Purple Summer” lacks kinetic energy and feels like a stitched-on coda to the show, especially as it tries to intone a note of hope so contrary to the evidence of the various characters’ personal tragedies.

On a brighter note, the lighting design is indeed (pardon the pun) brilliant. Working from an expanded palette that includes a constellation of floating colored bulbs and neon embedded into the set, in addition to a massive structure of overhead spots, the lighting, as much as the music, did an amazing job of setting and changing mood, creating atmosphere, enhancing textures and expanding space. The set and staging are also effective. The musicians are unobtrusively arranged to the back and side of the stage. Of special note are audience seats onstage, where you can see the action up close and sweaty.

Overall, “Spring Awakening” is enjoyable, though it did not quite live up to its own overblown hype as a Broadway quality, Tony Award-winning production. Lowered expectations and just slightly higher levels of execution would have made it more satisfying. Instead, it was more like watching well played AAA baseball, rather than a Major League game – skilled and technically correct, but lacking that final finesse and subtle edginess.


If you go

  • “Spring Awakening” presented by Broadway in Tucson at the Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave., through Saturday, February 6.
  • Evening performances through Saturday; matinee performances Saturday and Sunday.
  • Tickets are $27 - $55, with discounts available to students/military/seniors. Available through Ticketmaster (1-800-745-3000) or at the Tucson Music Hall box office.

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