Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Awakening

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.


Pam said...

Yay! I've been waiting ever so patiently to read your review of Spring Awakening. Being that I had not seen this show with the original cast, I really thought the actors did a great job. I wonder what I would think if I was able to go back in time and watch the orginal cast now. Which cast would I like more? Do you think it's human nature to like the one you saw first the most? Anything else seems like a copy of the "original" (or the first one you saw)? Anyway, I'm rambling and I hope that makes sense.

I am sorry to hear that there were so many empty seats on Sunday. Tuesday night the show was packed. Wonder why? The library I work at was one of the sites for the Ticket Treasure Hunt and I wondered why PPAC was offering that. I figured it was because they were having trouble selling tickets. I think the subject matter is off putting to many theater goers. I will admit that I didn't really want to see this show and was planning on trading my (subscription) tickets for something else. But, I procrastinated and didn't do it. And now I'm SO glad. It was a great show, but I can see why some people might choose not to see it. Too bad. Because it really is fabulous. Thanks for a great review.

Esther said...

Hey Pam, thanks for the comment!

I think that's a great question. You're right - it's probably human nature to like the cast you saw first, especially with a show like "Spring Awakening," which was so different from anything else I'd seen.

There's definitely that "wow" factor involved. Or at least there was with me. I thought, this is how people must have felt when they saw "Hair" for the first time.

I do find it a little difficult to write about a show I've already seen as if I were seeing it for the first time. You've just got this image of how these characters should look and sound. But the touring cast is great, too.

I'm glad to hear the performance you attended was packed. I think Sunday afternoon is probably a big family/group sales day and maybe the show didn't attract either of those audiences as much.

While it does deal with some serious subjects, I thought they were handled in a very thought-provoking and honest way that I'd imagine would resonate with a lot of older teenagers and adults.

I'd rather see that than a show that uses profanity, crude humor and jokes about bodily functions for no reason other than to get a rise out of the audience.

Sandy said...

Great review, Esther! I was waiting to read what you thought of the touring company, too, after having seen it on Broadway. I would love to see this show again but I imagine knowing what's coming in certain places would change the experience.

But, even with that said, I know I would enjoy another show because there were scenes I thought about later (and after having read several reviews) that made me realize I had missed a few things.

I'm guessing the reason for the empty seats was the time and day. I do think that must be a time that draws families with younger kids and this wouldn't have been appropriate.

And I agree with your comments, too, that the use of profanity and other 'taboo' subjects WAS appropriate and not just to get a reaction from the audience.

I agree that it was a great show with an interesting story and I hope they do well on the tour.

Esther said...

Thanks, Sandy!

You know, I should have mentioned that both Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff were in "Spring Awakening" on Broadway - they just weren't in the original cast. So in terms of the caliber of the performers in this production, I think it's very high. And I definitely felt the same thrill during my favorite musical numbers.

But because I loved the show so much when I saw it the first time I have a special affection for that cast. It didn't hurt that I met them at the stage door and they were so gracious. It's always extra special when a show I love ends with a great stage-door experience. It's like a bonus!

It is really interesting to pick up on things you don't notice the first time you see a show. Like knowing what happened with Wendla, the conversation she has with her mother at the beginning was even more dramatic.