“Spring Awakening” shines — intermittently

Innovative lighting and elaborate set design give the cast of "Spring Awakening" an exciting stage to work on, but the show's script cramps their style.

There’s a number in “Spring Awakening” called “Totally Fucked,” and though this production isn’t totally fucked — no, not totally — it bears some resemblance to the song’s lyrics, which go, “Blah blah blah blah.” Don’t get me wrong; this is a thrilling musical. It’s also just one damn thing after another. Instead of “The Vagina Monologues,” we get a “The Penis and Vagina Monologues” with the bonus of a few racy dialogues, if you catch my drift.

In “Spring Awakening,” 19th century German high school students become poster children of a sexual revolution they predate by a near century. This isn’t unreasonable, considering the rock musical is based on Frank Wedekind’s forward-thinking 1891 play. When Duncan Sheikh and Steven Sater updated Wedekind in 2006, they squeezed the plot to make room for the musical numbers, and ended up with a cautionary tale of sexual benightedness — something a sex ed class skit could do justice to. In the Black Forest of Germany the mind is another black forest; only blond crotches light up this universe.

But, of course, the musical didn’t win eight Tony awards just because audiences were getting off to characters getting off. There’s real pathos in the standstill traffic of musical numbers. The music doesn’t steal the show, it hogs it — and partially redeems it. Even if the lyrics sound like promotional talking points for a group called Adolescents United, each note here is a palimpsest, subtly turning every trauma into an archaeological dig of the psyche. And traumas abound: The musical’s a real smorgasbord of adolescent sorrows. Minor characters seem to exist as token sufferers, flitting on stage for a brief spotlight of suicide, or closeted homosexuality or sexual abuse. At this weekend’s Off-Broadway Theater production, some actors command more than their characters allow for: When Martha and Ilse come out from the ensemble’s periphery to sing of their sexual abuse, they refocus the show on themselves. It’s as if Keren Abreu ’15 and Anna Miller ’14, with their clean, nymph-like voices, are given leeway to play the part too well.

Director Samantha Pillsbury ’15 cleverly tries to capitalize on the show’s musical virtues, but that makes for a production whose individual scenes are stronger than the sum of the parts. When, in another casual aside in the plot, the show’s token gay characters confess their mutual affections, Truett David ’16 and Andrew Bezek ’13 mix naiveté and cautious seductiveness to conjure up a whole history of furtive glances. But where does this fit into the larger picture? It doesn’t.

Characters, too, go rogue, maybe because each one shaves off the pop from their performances: Lead Alyssa Miller ’16 sings Wendla’s role with singer-songwriter calm and superstar James Dieffenbach ’13 endows her paramour Melchior with a coltish un-Bieberness no pop star would have the balls to pull off.

Occasional flourishes of gospel-soul make for silly ornaments. No one belts (thank God), but Chris Camp ’16, playing badass Moritz, is the only one loose enough to rock. Stubborn, sniveling, sarcastic, suave, he’s a nuclear arsenal of spirit, a jerky Elvis Pelvis who totally owns “angst,” a German word after all. So his suicide comes as a total non sequitur. Sure, he flunked out of school, but wasn’t he just bitter about that? Even a voice like Camp’s can only convey so much; the plot gives him little to work with. As does this production’s ensemble, whose honeyed harmonies don’t burden themselves with the full spite of the lyrics. Shying from melodrama, the ensemble often ends up avoiding drama altogether. Individual characters get little propulsion from the cast.

Tonal indecisiveness is one consequence of the ensemble’s wise but effortful refusal to flash too much emotion. Another is that the production divides itself in facile, predictable ways — boys versus girls, adolescents versus adults — pitting them against and towards each other in a reminder that “Spring Awakening” is a simple, didactic and entirely masturbatory play.

“A shadow passed, a shadow passed,” is how the ensemble grieves Moritz. The characters in this play are shadows; the cast, crew and designers are most definitely not — this is one of the most talented teams at Yale. Their gestalt, alas, has much spring in its step, but goes nowhere.

Comments

  • mblaakman

    This strikes me as a rather churlish review. Your problems with the book are fair enough, but why allow them to determine the tone of the whole review? Why not focus, instead, on the strength of the execution? This is, after all–as you rightly grant–”one of the most talented teams at Yale,” and due attention to the quality of their work shouldn’t be sacrificed to the critical reflex.

  • anircom

    Thank you for looking at “Spring Awakening” *the show* with a critical eye -you’re right that the script is at times shallow, the characters rather archetypal. However, I found this review to be rather shallow itself in its ability to describe the experience of Yale’s production of this show. Ultimately, I can see that your point was that “one of the most talented teams at Yale” performed a musical that has problems. It’s a good point that I agree with, but this should have been the second sentence in your review, not the second-to-last one. Anyone who reads only the first paragraph of this review will come away thinking the show was terrible – you should thank copy/photo editors for providing you with a more redeeming title and photo caption. In covering this show, your job is not to write a critical essay on the merits of the script alone. Maybe, if it had been a student-written production you could focus the bulk of your analysis on the writing. But in a review of a student production of a Broadway musical, your job is to devote a few sentences to analyzing the script, and focus the rest on this particular adaptation. Talk about the lighting, the set, the costumes – talk about the creative decision to mix modern elements with period pieces. For example, Moritz’s German military-style jacket was held together with duct tape. The set combined natural forest elements with chalk-board scribbles. Moritz’s grave was created from the negative space of erasing chalk on the floor – these were cool elements that should have included! Talk about the amazing performance by a small orchestra. Talk about the casting and go further into different actors’ interpretations and choices about their characters. If you think this production might have shied too far away from melodrama, give examples, or think about why they might have made this choice. These are fundamental elements that should be included in a theatre review, and you did a dis-service to a production with great acting, singing and artistic vision by becoming caught up in wordplay and academic disapproval of Sheikh and Sader’s book and lyrics.