Seeing two of the most forward thinking musical theatre productions out there — Spring Awakening and American Idiot — in one weekend is quite extraordinary. The Bay Area welcomed the Spring Awakening touring cast, once again, to the area, but this time through Broadway San Jose – Nederlander’s attempt to get the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts filled with theatregoers after AMT went bankrupt last year.
To be honest, I went hestitantly to this production for a number of reasons. I’ve seen it twice on Broadway – one time in previews with the original cast (including the amazing Lea Michele) and over a year later with mostly understudies and new cast members. Another reason, is that touring casts usually cut expenses that the Broadway production would have included. Obviously this affects more bombastic musicals like Wicked, especially in regards to sets, lighting and sound, but Spring Awakening, in it’s simplicity, wasn’t affected by this. And finally, I realized that most of the cast members were making their professional debut with this production – meaning most of them have never worked on Broadway. Walking away, I realized that not only was this a fantastic production, but the talent and production quality was almost as comparable to the original cast. Quite a feat in my eyes! If the tour comes anywhere near you, then buy your tickets.
Spring Awakening opens with Wendla, played by Christy Altomare, innocently singing “Mama Who Bore Me” on a chair center stage. Instantly the audience is brought into Wendla’s world with ease and grace. The musical juxatoposes two worlds: the original adaptation of the play based in 1891 Germany and a 1980’s rock club. These two worlds are integrated smoothly with the aide of microphones — each time we enter the realm of the character’s mind, they pull out a microphone and sing — lighting, and sound design. While, at first, it’s a bit disjointed, the audience quickly picks up on the subetly between the two worlds.
The obvious frank discussion about sex and morality is at times extremely aggressive, even for today’s standards. When I first saw this production, this was my main complaint. I asked, “…do I really need to see [the sex]?” And my answer today is a solid, “Yes, we do.” It’s the point of the production and without it, I fear, the meaning would be lost. The play was banned in 1891 for it’s frank discussion about masturbation, homosexuality, abortion, rape, child abuse and suicide. Over a hundred years later, we should be at a point where we can talk about these difficult topics with our children in a way that’s informative and yet, appropriate. Would I take my teenager to this production without a conversation about the subject matter? No. But, it would be a great way to start a conversation and for that, I applaud Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater for tackling the subject matter.
The pacing of this production was right on. It moved from emotional to humorous to serious almost flawlessly except for a tempo mistep in “Bitch of a Living.” The energy-filled, “Totally F*cked” played on the humor of when were are caught in a difficult situation and are totally f*cked! (It happens, quite often!) “Whispering,” sung by Wendla, shows her somber mood when she finds out she’s pregnant, even though she ends positively, singing, “…something beautiful, a new chance, hear it’s whispering, there again.” The emotional intensity that Martha, played beautifully by Sarah Hunt, brought to the song “The Dark I Know Well” was incredibly moving. For a recent high school graduate, she has more talent than most dream of having. (She really needs to record the song; I’d buy it!) The ever-conflicted Moritz’s (Taylor Trensch) self-deprecating journey ends with suicide after he was not enlisted into the school of choice. (Seems a little to familiar to today’s standards.) Trensch’s youthful adaptation was fresh and believable. (I dare say, even more believable than the Tony-winning performance by John Gallagher Jr.!?) Overall, the cast brought a fresh and untainted quality that was so endearing and heartfelt. It almost felt like were watching their own personal sexual awakening on stage — raw and passionate.
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention the incredible lighting and staging of this production. It’s impeccable. They use the lighting as a part of the set and it becomes truly imperative to the story. And the choreography couldn’t be more appropriate for the style and consistency of the juxtaposition of the two worlds.
Some people believe that Spring Awakening is one of the most “overrated” musicals out there. Others have felt that the two worlds are disjointed and overall becomes too affected. Personally, I simply can’t deny what I feel when I see this musical. The music speaks to me. As bizarre as that might sound, it’s true. When Melchior sings “Those You’ve Known” and trys to deal with the death of his girlfriend and best friend, I sit there crying and I continue to cry as they show closes with “The Song of Purple Summer.” It’s beautiful. It’s poignant. It’s truly moving.