Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Spring Awakening, PlayhouseSquare

(The kids, in the process of being "Totally Fucked.")

When we’re ten or eleven, the world sort of makes sense. We’re pretty cool with everything, all elements seem to be in place, and then it happens. It starts with a raging, shapeless need that’s layered with confusion and guilt and nocturnal (not to mention diurnal) emissions. It’s the onset of our sexuality, and hoo-boy, are we in for the ride of out lives.

No play has ever captured the essence of what it feels like to be going through the long siege of puberty, in all its many forms, as profoundly and viscerally as Spring Awakening, the story of horny 19th century young people now at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. Dealing unflinchingly with topics including masturbation, gay sex, heterosexual intercourse, S&M, rape, adolescent suicide and abortion, the play never once titters nervously or shies away in false modesty.

This up-front approach, refreshing in the extreme, is paired with an indie-rock score, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Categorize it as you may, the music is elegant and raw, tender and punishing, and brilliantly conveys the whipsaw physical and psychological forces that torment teenagers in those crucial years. Small wonder that Spring, directed by Michael Mayer, won the 2007 Tony for Best Musical.

Although it’s not perfect—the second act is much less gripping than the first (never a good plan for a musical) and a couple performances are less than dazzling—this is a production that you simply cannot miss. Because it essentially redefines what a Broadway musical can be.

First, the scenic design by Christine Jones redefines what a set design can look like. All the action takes place in what appears to be a brick courtyard that is festooned with framed pictures appropriate to the 1800s and a variety of neon and other light sources. Combined with an open grid of lights above and a rainstorm of suspended pendant lights that change colors, the effects from moment to moment are spectacular.

A few audience members are seated grandstand style on both sides of the stage, and the eight-person band is in full view up stage. The company of young performers (plus two older adults who play all the grownups) often stays on stage too, when not involved in a scene. This helps quicken the pace of the show, which has precious few dead spots.

The story line is as old as time, with two buddies Melchior and Moritz trying to work out their newly intense feelings and the changes their bodies are experiencing. And this is happening within the strict confines of 19th century Germany (the show is adapted from an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind that was banned in that country).

Melchior is smitten by ripe young Wendla, who begs her mother for information about sex but is given the universal brush-off, “It’s all about love and marriage.” So she and Melchior pursue their own information-gathering process, on each other’s bodies. Meanwhile, Moritz’s brain is as screwed up as his wacky hairstyle (Note: This Moritz is not to be confused with local actor Marc Moritz, who is perennially and preternaturally well-coiffed), and he can’t seem to get his signals straight with gal pal Ilse. Tragic consequences ensue for all four.

The ensemble performance here is stunning, as the dozen young featured performers invest each song with the passion and purpose required. At the opening, stand-in Perry Sherman handled the demanding role of Melchior flawlessly and Blake Bashoff as Moritz matched him, beautifully expressing the chaotic yearning of this young man. Bashoff stands out in “The Bitch of Living” as he and the other boys in Latin class sing out for help and an angel responds: “Give me that hand. please/And the itch you can’t control/Let me teach you how to handle/All the sadness in your soul/Oh, we’ll work that silver magic/And then aim it at the wall.”

As Wendla, Christy Altomare is heartbreakingly na├»ve, and her lack of comprehension is touching when she sings to Melchior in “The Guilty Ones” the words: “Something’s started crazy/Sweet and unknown/Something you keep in a box on the street/Now it’s looking for a home.” And then, “This is the season for dreaming/And now our bodies are the guilty ones.”

With the exception of those already mentioned, the various teens on stage are not really individuals but speak as one for all young people trying to find their way: “Window by window/You try and look into/This brave new you that you are.” And then it all explodes in the second act when, in “Totally Fucked” (here performed by the Broadway cast), the choreography by Bill T. Jones somehow harnesses the frenetic energy and frustration of young people as they channel Charlie Brown’s teacher and just mimic the “Blah, blah, blah…” that comes from adults’ mouths.

The play lapses into too much soft balladry after that number, losing some of the drive that has built to that point. And a few scenes suffer because Henry Stram, as all the adult men, doesn’t successfully find a different hook for an assortment of pain-in-the-ass old guys, making it often hard to distinguish who he is supposed to be.

But these are small quibbles about a play that boldly deals with controversial issues, and which dares to construct a new visual and compositional vocabulary for musical theater. And if the idea of such subject matter and such language is upsetting, get over it. The kids are listening, and taking notes.

Spring Awakening
Through March 15 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,
216-241-6000

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