Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

Spring Awakening

Ambitious Broadway Fusion Hits The Marcus Center

By Russ Bickerstaff
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According to the literature, the late 19th Century was a very sexually repressed time. Around the time that Sigmund Freud was starting to discover memories of childhood sexual abuse in his patients, a German playwright named Frank Wedekind wrote a play sharply criticizing the sexually repressive culture of Germany at the time. Wedekind’s Spring Awakenings  covered a lot of ground in a single plot about a group of kids and the various tragedies that befall them as there is not sufficient open discussion of sexuality in the culture. A girl has sex with a boy not knowing that she will conceive a child. Someone gets expelled. There’s a suicide. It’s a parade of tragedies that come about because the culture shunned its sexuality. There must’ve been some truth to what Wedekind was saying because the play didn’t get staged until 15 years after he’d written it. By that time Freud’s first couple of books were published and his controversial theories about human sexuality were being circulated about amongst German intellectuals. It was a bit more okay to talk about sex onstage.

Over 100 years later, the play serves as the foundation for a new rock opera that has met with considerable acclaim on Broadway. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik wrap the story around a mixture of punk-inspired alt-rock and traditional Broadway-style musical ballads. The Broadway production closed after a successful run in New York earlier this year. The touring production lives on, making it to Milwaukee this week.

The stage at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall has been transformed to look like a mid-1990’s deconstruction of a 19th century European classroom. The set serves largely as  backdrop for the lights. The Kevin Adams lighting scheme is dazzling, particularly for those of us who love mid-1980’s music videos. There’s a lot of neon and colored light in there. There’s even a little bit of the classic smoke effect at certain moments. It all looks very cool, but effects that looked really impressive on a TV screen two and a half decades ago don’t necessarily have the same effect in a big venue like Uihlein Hal. The visual impact of what’s onstage gets diffused in all that space. It's pretty, but it's suffers from being kind of small next to all of those seats.

Duncan Sheik has put together a score that does a really good job of fusing alt-rock with Broadway show tunes. The more traditional sound of Broadway is alive and well here—with a few fresh tweaks here and there. The slower ballads can feel a bit uninspired—not entirely unlike anything that’s made it to Broadway in the past decade or so, but the more contemporary pop stuff has a kind of energy here that makes Spring Awakening worth seeing. Like any Broadway cast, there’s a lot of talent in the cast, but the most consistently interesting talent here ends up being Taylor Trensch in the role of Moritz—an emerging adult who is absolutely plagued by his puberty. As Moritz, Trensch delivers some of the harsher, heavier rock bits of the musical. The character ends up coming across as a tortured punk/emo guy in all the right ways. His lead vocals on a couple of the heavier songs are something of a thematic centerpiece to the entire musical. Trensch is standing there with a weird haircut in a schoolboy's outfit looking something like a cross between Angus Young and Eraserhead doing the Kurt Cobain Smells Like Teen Spirit thing in a classroom ful of similarly dressed schoolboy punks who have pulled microphones out of their blazers. This is a very, very rock moment. If it were populated by just a few more moments like Trensch’s, Spring Awakenings would’ve been a far more satisfying show. 

Hearing recent-vintage pop music performed live on a set in the context of a  compelling emotional story is somewhere outside the realm of being completely satisfying with Spring Awakening, particularly as it spends a bit too much time being a standard musical with a standard musical love story. Going to Spring Awakening is a little like going to a heavily polished rock concert, a bit like going to a standard musical theatre show. It’s a bizarrely idiosyncratic experience that should fuse a couple of different diverse demographics together in the same audience. Theatre in general and Broadway in particular need more projects like Spring Awakening to continue to be a living part of contemporary consciousness.

Spring Awakening runs through October 11th at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall.

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