Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Sunday afternoon marked a milestone in my admittedly short theatergoing career. For the first time, I saw a show on tour that I'd seen on Broadway with its original cast.
I saw Spring Awakening in 2007, about a month after it won the Tony for Best Musical. It was a Wednesday matinee, the seventh and final musical during my five days in New York. You'd think by then, I might have had my fill of show tunes. And I wasn't sure I'd be interested in the problems of teenagers in 19th-century Germany.
But Spring Awakening, based on a play by Frank Wedekind, was so unlike anything else I'd seen that week. It was just thrilling to watch. I loved the rock 'n' roll score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The characters and story moved me so much, I was in tears. I left the theatre feeling drained and exhilarated.
The young, energetic cast was wonderful, especially Jonathan Groff as the rebellious intellectual Melchior, Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. as the awkward and insecure Moritz and Lea Michele as the sweet and innocent Wendla.
At the risk of sounding like a theatre snob, the original cast just occupies a special place in my heart. I met them at the stage door afterward and got to see how incredibly gracious they were with their fans, even though they had another show that evening. Their parents definitely raised them right!
The second time around the story didn't pack quite as big an emotional punch, probably because there wasn't the same element of surprise. But I still felt the same exhilaration, I still loved the way the music and the choreography and the lighting all fit together to tell this story in such an imaginative, compelling way.
I really enjoyed Canadian Kyle Riabko as Melchior, Lost alumnus Blake Bashoff as Moritz and Christy Altomare as Wendla. My only qualm is that I didn't think they were quite as powerful actors or singers as Groff, Gallagher and Michele. But that could be my memory playing tricks on me, too.
Throughout the musical, these teenagers and their classmates explore their sexuality and face pressures both at home and at school.
The musical comes with a parental discretion warning that it contains mature themes, including sexual situations and profanity. There's a masturbation scene that's pretty funny, even if it went on longer than I remembered! And there's a very small amount of nudity during a sex scene - a partially exposed girl's breast and a boy's rear end that you can see fleetingly.
Spring Awakening also deals with child abuse, abortion and suicide. But I think it deals with them honestly, in a very believable way. The show never struck me as titillating for the sake of being titillating, the way sex or four-letter words are sometimes used.
There were elements that definitely hit me stronger this time around - the humor as the boys try to cope with their feelings of lust, the harshness and cluelessness of most of the adult characters - parents and teachers - played by Angela Reed and Henry Stram. (Although I wish the gay love scene had been played with more tenderness and fewer laughs).
One of the things that makes Spring Awakening so exciting is that it's visually stunning - especially Kevin Adams' lighting design and Bill T. Jones' choreography. I could watch the ensemble numbers "The Bitch of Living" and Totally F***ed over and over again, they are so much fun. But there's also a great deal of poignancy, too, in songs like "Those You've Known."
I noticed lots of empty seats at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Maybe part of it had to do with the 88-degree day. The grandmotherly woman sitting next to me said she'd heard a few people walked out during an earlier performance. But she enjoyed it, even thought she told me it was the first R-rated musical she'd ever seen!
Spring Awakening moves to Boston next and I hope it attracts a bigger audience. If you missed it on Broadway, don't worry. This production is thrilling and it touches on some very real issues in the lives of teenagers. If you're seeing it for the first time, bring some tissues.