“Spring Awakening,” the multiple Tony Award-winning hit that hit Broadway in 2006, is often mistakenly described as a “coming-of-age musical.” The modern show adapts and, surprisingly, sanitizes its once outrageous namesake from 19th-century German source material, a play by Frank Wedekind. The original is packed with the darkest stuff, exuding so much frustrated Germanic nostalgia that Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is a romantic comedy by comparison. There’s the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl (stowed away in the musical as a consensual roll in the hay), insanity, suicide, parental sexual abuse, and ostracism. And all this without an ounce of justice for the young and the innocent. Neither the original play nor the musical offers coming of age as much as they make one snuff of age. The musical features an early 2000s indie rock score and includes punk tunes to get noticed. Nonetheless, it’s as dark as any musical I’ve seen. To the great honor of the director-choreographer Brenda Didier, the actors and the formidable pit band of the production, this show, so sad on the page, nevertheless offers joys on stage. And, for those, like many teenagers (I could once count myself in that number), who find catharsis and perhaps gothic glamor in the suffering of fictional teenagers, it’s a sight to behold… But maybe- to be without his parents.
Young Wendla opens the show with a penetrating solo, the enigmatic and haunting ‘Momma Who Bore Me’. Wendla, like all the young characters in the series, is barely pubescent and has trouble understanding her feelings. Performed with open sensibility and beautifully performed by Maya Lou Hlava, Wendla sings alone on stage, running her hands sensually over her changing body. Without understanding the most basic facts of life, Wendla has a hunch that the bodily facts of her changing self are somehow related to pregnancy. The song’s lyrics are obscure, but Hlava is one of the most touching actors in the production and her character’s sadness and fury at the silence of adults who refuse to enlighten her is clear. It also sets up the moral universe, and the moralizing adults, that the other young characters will suffer.
The action moves to a strictly boys-only Latin classroom in a local gymnasium, the kind of university preparatory school that was the gateway to higher education and the German professional class. One of the boys is the anxious Moritz, played in a bravura performance by slickly animated Quinn Kelch, who often looks, moves, and sounds like he’s in a crazy anime scene. Moritz is the scapegoat of the always crossed schoolmaster. The master is one of many adults in the room cast from the same hypocritical, cold, and haughty mould. They are all played by the same two actors and it is sometimes difficult to know which adult they play. When Moritz falls on a conjugation while reciting the opening of “The Aeneid”, the master belittles him. To Moritz’s rescue comes another student, the handsome and confident Melchior, played coldly by Jack DeCesare. Melchior argues that his friend’s error was reasonable, and backs it up with odd scholarship that references other classical texts. The teacher snaps and moves on, but, humiliated, he also decides to kick Moritz out of school. Adult friendship, sex, and duplicity eventually bind the fates of Wendla, Melchior, and Mortiz to tragic effect.
These three main characters are joined by an energetic cast that is also a compelling vocal ensemble and crackerjack. It’s not a musical where the songs displace the action. Most are reiteratives of what has been or will be performed directly on stage, and they do little to advance our understanding of the characters. Plus, the lyrics are often so inscrutable that it’s up to the choreography to tie the songs to the action. If the songs contributed more, the characters in “Spring Awakening” might have been less archetypal or more three-dimensional. The cast, musicians and production crew have made the most of what they’ve been given and this show will likely resonate with the age group whose pains it portrays.
“Spring Awakening” at the Porchlight Music Theater at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets start at $25, (773) 777-9884 or porchlightmusictheatre.org. Until June 2