Spring Awakening is a rock musical with music by 90s alt-rocker Duncan Sheik. It’s based on a play of the same title by German playwright Frank Wedekind.
Written in 1891, Wedekind’s story is about a group of teens in a provincial German town struggling to deal with their budding sexuality in a stifling, repressive society. The stuffy, prudish adults in their lives all but ignore them in their need for sex education and leave them to deal with the consequences of acting on their throbbing biological urges.
The play deals with teen pregnancy, rape, abortion, child abuse and a litany of other issues in a frank and honest manner and has been frequently banned throughout its 120-year history.
Though it is a period piece with period dialogue, stylistically, the production features many contemporary references. Duncan Sheik’s score draws from a wide-range of contemporary American musical genres from pop, rock, folk and gospel and the black costumes suggest the “emo” fashion of today’s teens.
The juxtaposition of old and new underscores the fact that even though the play is over a century old the issues are still as relevant today as ever. I know I can certainly relate to the characters; my conservative Chinese immigrant parents were prudish and never talked about sex. They never gave me “the talk” and everything I knew about sex as a teen I learned from late night cable TV and the Internet.
Attending a Catholic high school, my fellow students and I weren’t taught about safe sex or contraception. Not surprisingly, the school board’s “head-in-the-sand” approach to sex education resulted in my high school having a disproportionately high rate of teen pregnancy.
Even today, Catholic schools have an atrocious record on sex education, sexual health and respecting minority rights as we’ve seen by the backward attitude of Catholic school boards in refusing to allow gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
I was lucky enough to have seen the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening in 2007 which starred many of the current cast members in Glee. I was immediately taken by the show because of its catchy score, its interesting style and its freshness.
Michael Rubenstein directs the production for the Lower Ossington Theatre. He successfully straddles the period setting and the contemporary stylistic sensibility of the show.
Rubenstein borrows the interesting stylistic convention used in the original Broadway production of actors singing into hand-held microphones when they break from the dialogue into the musical numbers.
Many of the songs in the show aren’t strictly exposition but inner monologues figuratively describing the character’s state of mind. Performing the songs in a rock concert style using hand-held microphones heightens their surrealism.
Though the cast is young the actors are age-appropriate for a show with teen characters like Spring Awakening. They enthusiastically sell the show with conviction; their energy is absolutely infectious in the big, rockin’ ensemble numbers “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.”
For the most part, the show’s leads ably perform their demanding roles. Andrew Ball’s portrayal of the quirky and awkward Moritz felt a little over the top at first but he comes into his own mid-way through the first act and he’s more effective at delivering his character’s emotional torment.
Jonathan Logan is the subversive, confident and self-assured Melchior; often portrayed as more of a seductive pretty-boy, Logan’s performance is balanced and layered. Courtney Lamanna also delivers an affecting performance as the naïve and inquisitive Wendla.
All three leads hit their stride in the latter part of the show where they are challenged to plumb their characters’ emotional depths.
Amanda Nagy’s choreography effectively accentuates the music; the skittish stomping of the boys during “The Bitch of Living” perfectly embodies their sexual frustration and the placement of dancing couples around the stage evoking the sexual abuse described in the song “The Dark I Know Well” increases the emotional weight of the scene.
The cast does an admirable job performing the difficult multi-part choral harmonies and contrapuntal melodies. A small band sits on stage and provides the musical accompaniment although the absence of the violin and cello from the original score means the arrangements don’t sound as full in this production.
Ultimately, despite the dark subject matter, the cast performs with heart and conveys the uplifting spirit of the show making for an engaging and enjoyable evening of theatre.
- Spring Awakening
- Music by Duncan Sheik, Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater
- Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
- Directed by Michael Rubenstein
- Runs from September 21 to October 8,2011 at the Lower Ossington Theatre (The LOT), located at 100A Ossington Avenue, just north of Queen St.
- Performances at 8PM and 4PM (Sunday matinees)