By Jeff Walsh
Spring Awakening is the newest show on Broadway (at the time of this writing), fusing together the text of a controversial-for-its-time play with a rock score by singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik. Fusing the two elements together made for some great musical moments and some interesting dramatic moments, although they rarely overlapped. First, we are in a Latin class in a German school in 1891, then one of the kids reaches into his jacket, pulls out a microphone, and all of the angst from the previous scene fuels the song as the electric guitar and drums kick into high gear.
I liked both sides of the show, the classic play and the rock concert, although it rarely seemed to fuse into one experience. When it did, such as the close of act one, when the young couple make love on a miniature floating stage, as the singing cast sit around them, rocking them slowly, and singing "I Believe," it was inspired magic, the reason people go to the theater, a moment of pure exhilaration when every element of the production combined flawlessly to create something greater than each of its parts. The cast, the music, and the audience all went somewhere else together in that chorus, and came out the other side better for the journey.
The show is based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play "Spring Awakening," and hits every hot button topic including sex, suicide, homosexuality, abortion, abuse, and repression. Possibly in response to my recent non-fiction reading, the show resonated strongly because of its overlap with today's religious fundamentalism. The adults in the show try to not tell their kids about the real world in order to protect them, but having a censored view of the world only makes them more confused and rebellious in the long run. The girl that gets pregnant in the show actually didn't know she could based on the vague "birds and the bees" talk awkwardly delivered by her reticent mother. After seeing recent movies like Jesus Camp, and the BBC documentary "God's War," the parallels with today seemed deliberate. And, considering the original text of this play is more than 100 years old, the desire to not speak of such things will continue to be a losing (albeit attractive) strategy.
The show is really sold on the energy of the young cast. The trio of leads -- Melchior (Jonathan Groff), Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), and Melchior's girlfriend Wendla (Lea Michele) -- carry the majority of the show. Groff brings a lot of nuance to his part as someone who questions the status quo and deals with his sexual desires, and Gallagher steals the show with his piled-high hair, devilish attitude and rock star posing. There is brief nudity that adds a level of intimacy to the scene. The adult roles, featuring Stephen Spinella, are largely eclipsed by the youthful emo thrust of the show.
Rent is the obvious comparison, with its high-energy rock score, young cast, and classic text underpinnings that shine a light on modern problems. Spring Awakening isn't as ambitious, though. It seems more fragile and intimate, that it might resonate with fewer people but when it does, it will go much deeper.
The gay scene plays funny, as Jonathan B. Wright seduces Gideon Glick with none of the baggage of gay identity that plagues today's teens. Glick says he will most likely become a pastor at some point, but seems open to letting his friend kiss him minutes later without a hint of reticence, which only goes to show what a world with labels could be like ideally, although never practically.
If you're visiting from out of town and are light on funds, there are both $25 student tickets available day-of show, and $31.25 on-stage tickets that can be purchased in advance or day-of show.
As much as the show never combined into one fluid thing, it was still a worthwhile experience. It was ambitious and original, which is better than seeing yet another show "Inspired by the music of (insert band or songwriter's name here)." If you ever wished the characters in a Merchant-Ivory film started singing rock music, dancing on the tables, getting you excited and stomping your feet, and then going right back to the costume drama, heaven awaits. If not, it is still pretty amazing to see a show get a lot of attention for bringing magic and yearning to Broadway. Thankfully, it still has a place there.