Review: Spring Awakening

Hello again after an unexpected summer off blogging and theater. There were several reasons why I didn’t see much of anything since the Tonys, and why I didn’t post about the few shows I did see. But who needs excuses? (OK, for those of you who do need excuses: I broke my foot, spent two months on crutches, and had to take cabs everywhere. I felt too poor and immobile to want to go see any theater.) In any case, I’m back and feeling refreshed. (Though I’m still limping.)

Now shall we get right to it?

spring awakeningEver wonder why I abandoned my dream of becoming a professional theater critic? One reason was my reaction to Spring Awakening. I had long appreciated the Wedekind play, so I saw the musical at the Atlantic in its original off-Broadway incarnation in 2006. (This is the same production that took Broadway by storm a few months later.) Long story short: I didn’t care for it much. It’s nearly a decade ago now, so I don’t remember my thoughts precisely, but as I recall I thought it was a little ham-fisted. In any case, I later saw the Broadway production a number of times, and completely changed my mind about the musical. My revised opinion: it was powerful, beautifully staged, edgy, and very, very exciting. I recommended it to nearly all my friends, and even purchased tickets FOR them on occasion. I wondered how I could ever have disliked this. And how could I ever be a theater critic when I could change my mind so completely about a show?

Here’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, I’ve come full circle on Spring Awakening after seeing the new Broadway incarnation. It’s a fascinating musical, and it’s given a wonderful new production, but once again: I didn’t really care for it. (But I still don’t want to be a professional theater critic, as it turns out. Blogging is more fun!)

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, let me talk about the revival, which is a Deaf West production. You probably already know about the show, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2007. But in case you forgot: Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla are teens in 1890s Germany who have been given little to no information about sex from their parents. The consequences are tragic. Now, if you are lucky, you also already know all about Deaf West, because you saw their unforgettable Big River back in the early aughts. (Absolutely stunning!) In terms of spectacular staging, Spring Awakening is on a par with Big River. The new staging certainly brings added meaning to the musical: in the Playbill, there’s a fascinating director’s note that tells us sign language for Deaf students was banned in 1880 (with the idea that Deaf students needed to learn to read lips and adjust to life in a hearing world). In this version of Spring Awakening, awkward and confused young Moritz is Deaf, and his struggles in school clearly result from his failure to understand his teachers. It makes perfect sense, and his ultimate fate feels even more tragic.

Director Michael Arden uses a cast of both Deaf and hearing actors to portray the teenagers as well as their parents and teachers. Sandra Mae Frank is an expressive Wendla, for example, who communicates through sign language during most of the show. Her constant companion onstage is Katie Boeck, who sings all of Wendla’s songs, and frequently holds hands with Ms. Frank. Seems bizarre that a young Deaf German girl’s inner soul would look like a modern indie rocker, doesn’t it? But it works beautifully in the context of the show.

The entire production is fluid and beautifully staged, with terrific acting all around. Plus there’s that evocative choreography from Spencer Liff (though I don’t know if the movement was as beautiful as Bill T. Jones’s choreography in the original production).

But as I said, I didn’t like it. I think it’s mostly because once you’ve gotten past the shock factor of explicit sex in a Broadway musical (and I’m certainly past it, given how many times I saw and listened to the original) you may start to realize something. Spring Awakening, to my mind, just doesn’t hold up very well. The script reads like a clunky translation of Wedekind’s original German, with odd skips in dialogue. (The original play is more episodic, but each scene seems to make more sense.) Plus there are definite plot holes, though to be fair some of those were in the original script. And then there are the lyrics. I understand that Steven Sater was trying to do something different, and more modern, with the lyrics more like those in rock songs than musical theater. But these aren’t even very good rock lyrics. Plus they don’t really sit on the music very well. For example, a teen sings: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on/Shoot up some you in the ‘you’ of some song.” I sort of understand what he’s saying, I guess, but it’s just a bizarre way to say it. The awkward phrasing and (literally) purple imagery kept taking me out of the moment, precisely the opposite of what a musical theater song should do.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Spring Awakening at all — it seems like it just left Broadway a few years ago, and i didn’t particularly feel like paying $50 to see a retread. Especially not when there are so many new shows to see! But I was convinced by the rapturous recommendations from friends as well as critics. I don’t regret going to see it, because this is truly a beautiful production with stunning direction from Michael Arden. It left me wanting to see Deaf West come back to Broadway with a show that’s even worthier of its many talents.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $51 (TDF)
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95%