When Spring Awakening won eight Tony Awards for 2007, including Best Musical, word around the Big Apple went that it would never tour, that it was strictly a “New York show.” Why? Frank Wedekind’s “tragedy of childhood,” on which the musical’s based, is just too controversial, too sexually explicit for the provinces.
Well, Spring is explicit, but almost tastefully so. The sex scenes, including masturbation beneath a nightshirt, aren’t done to titillate. They illustrate youthful perplexity as much as — and often during — erotic pleasure. If one finds such sights offensive, then one should stay away. For the rest of us provincials, though, Spring’s a bullet-train ride back to the days of raging hormones.
Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” How Wedekind’s adolescents experience that epic but fleeting “touch” and how their elders stifle it are what the musical’s about.
Wedekind wrote the play in 1891, but because it was so “obscene,” he couldn’t get it produced for 15 years. In brief, often fragmentary scenes, teenage self-discovery clashes with lockstep repression. The play takes place in a rural German town. Melchior Gabor’s mother won’t let him read Goethe’s Faust because it’s “too radical.” Moritz Stiefel isn’t measuring up in school and fears how his parents will react. Young Wendla Bergmann’s mother, who assures her 14-year-old daughter that babies come from storks, lengthens Wendla’s frock to make it a more “penitential garment.” Almost by conspiracy, parents and teachers stomp out sexual stirrings in the young. They want their children to “desire what is good rather than what is interesting.” In the process, a “suicide epidemic” breaks out.
Spring Awakening may offend, but not just its explicitness. The show opens with a blame-thrower. There’s no overture, no easing-in period. Christy Altomajre’s excellent Wendla walks out, stands on a chair, and sings “Mama Who Bore Me.” The opening arrests, not merely because it’s so simple (why didn’t anyone think of this before; just enter and go), but because our eyes see one thing and our ears hear another. Wendla tenderly caresses herself, as if exploring uncharted territory, but she sings with controlled ferocity. Her mother gave her “no way to handle things” and made her “so sad.” Winter trumped spring. That’s why “there’s no sleep in heaven, or Bethlehem.”
In the reprise that follows “Mama Who Bore Me,” Wendla’s friends join in (none of whom leaves adolescence unscathed). Their teachers taught guilt, not the facts of life. The twin numbers set the musical’s hurt and angry tone. They also establish its vocal style. Laser-eyed, their mouths sculpting every word, the cast sings front, concert-style. They roar into hand mikes, as if convinced that no one would listen otherwise — or that no one is listening period.
They aren’t just earnest, they’re serious, and never more so than in the show’s — and, some claim, this generation’s — anthem. Hair had “Aquarius,” Rent, “Seasons of Love.” When the cast did a brief medley of the Spring score at the Tonys, it was okay for them to sing about “The Bitch of Living” on TV. But when they came to the anthem, they muted its offensive words: “You can kiss your sorry a** goodbye,” they sang, because life is — the song’s title — “Totally F*****.”
An underlying reason people feared Spring might not tour well, I suspect, is that the original’s such a spare, incredibly tight show that the demands of touring might dilute it. There are no wasted moves, and often it blasts from 0 to 60 in an instant. Plus, the characters are sketchy and require top young talent to get their attitude, that fury, just right.
The production at the Balboa Theatre represents a dual shakedown cruise. The company’s beginning a national tour here, and the renovated theater’s having its first big musical tryout. Flying colors for both. The Balboa’s such a natural venue for this kind of event you wonder why it ever closed.
And the production rocks. Kyle Riabko, as the budding nihilist Melchior, and Blake Bashoff as Moritz (a mesa of brown hair rising from his scalp) head a cast with no weak links. Every move, whether singing out or stomping the floor hard, is absolutely in the moment.
On the technical side, Spring’s both then and now. Kevin Adams’s extraordinary lighting combines neon lines and circles with galaxies of blue, orange, and red stars. The music has rock and hip-hop roots. But the musicians play instruments more attuned to Wedekind’s era: string bass, cello, violin, and viola.
Director Michael Mayer bleachers some audience members on the sides of the stage. (Michael Greif used a similar approach to make his Rent more intimate.) Christine Jones’s scenic design’s also a hybrid. The box set with three red brick walls suggests today. Objects on the walls — a headless body in a casket, an angel’s wing — light up and tell parts of Wedekind’s original story. Among other things, the musical becomes a tour through a sad old museum.
Susan Hilferty’s Edwardian costumes — boys in four-button sport coats, girls in long, puffy-shouldered cottons — make the stage resemble a Harry Potter movie, in which heretofore asexual students encounter a mystery far greater than magic.
Spring Awakening, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Balboa Theatre, 854 Fourth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Michael Mayer; cast: Christy Altomare, Kyle Riabko, Blake Bashoff, Matt Schingledecker, Ben Moss, Andy Mientus, Gabrielle Garza, Kimiko Glenn, Steffi D, Sarah Hunt; scenic design, Christine Jones; costumer, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; music director, Jared Stein; choreographer, Bill T. Jones
Playing through August 31; Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 6:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. 619-570-1100.