‘Awakening’ and sing

Posted on 01 Apr 2010 at 9:53am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Le Sheik goes freak in raucous by beautiful B’way tour

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater certainly didn’t invent the rock musical, but they did sort of reinvent it with Spring Awakening. Sheik, best known for consumable pop songs like "Barely Breathing," doesn’t work in the idiom of true punk — his ballads sound like ballads, and as raucous as his guitar riffs can get, there’s a strong melodic through-line.

But he does know something about punkifying the Broadway stage.

Spring Awakening stands in an unusual middleground: It updates but also roots firmly in the past its story of teen sexual burgeoning. Sater, who wrote the book and lyrics, based his script on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, which was often banned for its frank depiction of teenaged longing. The musical version is set during the same era, and with the boys in knickerbockers studying Latin and the girls in knee socks and Lederhosen with braided pigtails. They seem, to their repressed Victorian Age parents, as obediently neutered things, not real people.

And that’s the cause of all the trouble.

When girls are told that a stork brings babies — or, eventually, that babies are conceived "only when a woman loves her husband" — well, then, it’s easy to imagine how one might get knocked up inadvertently.

If you detect similarities to the religious right’s doctrinal insistence on abstinence-only education and Stupak Amendment anti-choice sentiment, well all I can say is, No shit, Sherlock. Spring Awakening is about how little has changed, not how much.

Which is why its central conceit — to contain the musical numbers as the interior monologues of the children, as loud and confused and full of passion as their hormones allow — is a genius decision that leads to a transcendent show. It’s Our Town with onstage masturbation and wild musical numbers.

Sater tells the tale — about Melchior (Jake Epstein), the humpy scholar-poet, who falls for the impressionable Wendla (Christy Altoomare), a girl of dark sexual fantasies masked by her bright-eyed innocence — with great economy. They court, they couple, they conceive a child, they are ripped apart by a society that will not acknowledge its own role in leading to their doom. Like Rebel without a Cause, the kids are alright … or would be, if only someone would treat them with respect.

It’s easy to imagine why Wedekind’s original was so often censored — and why some members of the audience at the Winspear hesitated briefly to applaud at songs with names of "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "The World of Your Body" and "Totally Fucked." (I, for one, left the theater singing the chorus to "Totally Fucked" to the titters of other patrons, each of whom had to admit deep down they wished they had to courage to join in.)

This is radical stuff in many ways, including the disrespect (earned) for authority figures who uses corporal punishment and reprehensible conniving to subdue sweet-natured Moritz (Taylor Trensch), a screw-up victimized by adults. It also include a closeted gay couple exploring their sexuality together front-and-center (the passionate kiss between them may be as shocking as "Totally Fucked"), nudity and scenes of sado-masochism that rival Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies.

The young cast makes it all work, as does director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, who uses herk-a-jerk movements to capture the convulsive energy of teenaged desire. It’s an explosive piece of stagecraft all around. Each cast member could be justifiably singled out, but one reason Spring Awakening delivers so precisely is the beautiful way all the elements fold in on one another. Without the special effects of Wicked or the snark of Avenue Q, it’s plainly one of the best musicals of the new millennium, and this tour evidence of that. It’s a not-to-be-missed production.

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