Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind is a powerful 19th century play (first performed in 1906) about sexual tensions in early teens who live in the suppressed society of Germany. It was banned at first because of its depictions of masturbation, rape, homosexuality, teen suicide, and abortion.
It is hard-hitting stuff, and not really the stuff of musical comedy, but Steve Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) gave it a try and won a slew of Tony Awards along the way. Judging from the excellent touring company that is currently in residence at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA, I can understand why. It’s a beautifully produced, directed, acted, and choreographed piece of high-spirited and exciting rock and roll. Unfortunately, Wedekind gets lost in the process.
What was a powerful, sad, and frightening play becomes a tuneful, energetic musical comedy. I think that rape, masturbation, and abortion do not a musical comedy make – a musical perhaps, an opera most definitely. The characters in the original play know nothing about sex, its mechanics, or the emotions involved. Rock, however, presupposes a certain knowingness.
In the play the story itself acts as a protest, while in the musical the songs, often presented in the Brechtian manner of confronting the audience, are the means by which any protests are made. The authors have changed the story so that what was once a violent rape scene becomes a scene of consensual sex between misunderstood kids. A touching, beautiful, homosexual scene of first sexual exploration becomes a manipulated joking scene of predator and prey. The masturbation scene, one where the rush of sexual feeling is first experienced, becomes a comic interlude with song.
If, however, I just looked at the product and not its predecessor, I would really enjoy the show. It becomes a musical expression of sexual awakening and parental and societal repression, set to rock-infused folk. It’s a marvelous score, well sung, and tuneful. The show was one of the more exciting productions to be seen on Broadway in quite a while. Most of this was due to the inventive direction by Michael Mayer and the dynamic choreography of Bill T. Jones.
The cast in uniformly talented and winning. The starring roles are played by Christy Altomare, as Wendla as the virgin, who is given to fantasies of beatings and rape, and the handsome Kyle Riabko as Melchior, her lover. The misfit and academic failure who later kills himself – the clownish Moritz – is slightly overplayed by Blake Bashoff. All the adult characters are sternly played by two actors, Henry Stram and Angela Reed. All have good voices and infectious energy. Go, you may love the musical as many have, but if you are a fan of the original Wedekind be prepared to be disappointed.
Spring Awakening plays at the Ahmanson until Dec 7th.