Let’s be forthright: Despite its seemingly upbeat title, the musical Spring Awakening, onstage at the Aronoff Center in an attention-grabbing touring production, deals with dark and difficult topics: teen suicide, unplanned pregnancy, physical abuse. Set in the 1890s (it’s based on a controversial German play from 1891), it’s about angsty teens whose hormones have started to flow — that’s the meaning of the title — but whose parents and teachers are in denial (at best) and largely controlling and repressed. The generation gap is nothing new.
The show asks audiences to step away from stereotypical notions of musical theater populated by happy, romantic people who overcome challenges with a song. The emotions felt by the five girls and six boys in Spring Awakening are nothing new: sexual urges, social uncertainty, an urge to grow up quickly while fearing what that means. The 2007 Tony Award-winning musical exposes and exploits these hopes and fears literally.
[For more background see my feature story, "Wake-Up Call."]
Spring Awakening universalizes its themes by juxtaposing provincial, 19th-century Germany with music that’s very much today, Indie Rock. The teens, dressed in school uniforms from a century ago, pull out hand-held mics to sing. Angular, frenzied choreography by modern dance master Bill T. Jones (who won a Tony Award for this work) makes their emotions breathtakingly visual. The athletic movement and from-the-gut singing takes its inspiration more from Rock shows than traditional musicals.
The story follows three adolescents: naive Wendla (Christy Altomare), who asks questions her mother prudishly refuses to answer; cynical, worldly Melchior (Jake Epstein) takes an anti-authority stance that makes him a chick magnet, even while hiding his own doubts behind a mask of precocious knowledge; and anxiety-ridden Moritz (Taylor Trensch) is a bundle of fears who second-guesses his own actions and beats himself up for missed opportunities.
His bird’s-nest hair in Act I reflects his tangled emotions; it changes in Act II to reflect deeper fears. (Hair offers a window into many of the roles.)
Wendla, Melchior and Moritz are each on a path to unhappiness that’s not only acted but sung. But these songs — by Rock composer Duncan Sheik with words by Steven Sater — also provide flashes of beauty, hope and positive desire. Altomare’s pure soprano and pristine diction (she trained at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music) are perfect for the sweet Wendla, yearning to understand life’s mysteries. Epstein distills Melchior’s arrogance in “All That’s Known,” but his sweet tenor and dark eyes belie doubts just below the surface. His sensitivity after a friend’s suicide (“Left Behind”) is powerfully felt. As Moritz, Trensch embodies the socially awkward kid who fears he’ll never catch up (he leads the angry song, “The Bitch of Living”) and his alienation (“Don’t Do Sadness”).
The show’s entire ensemble, actors and an onstage band of a half-dozen players (including two fine guitarists), add frenetic activity and vocal strength. Especially noteworthy is Steffi D as Ilse, a free spirit dressed in life-affirming green in her final scene: She’s less threatened by impending maturity, and her optimism gives Spring Awakening its occasional warmer moments in “Blue Wind” and the modestly hopeful finale, “The Song of Purple Summer.” Angela Reed and John Wojda play various adults who govern the lives of the teens, constantly reinventing characters with slight changes in posture and voice.
Spring Awakening is imaginatively staged with several rows of onstage seating. Actors sit among the audience there, stepping in and out of the action. The tall brick rear wall supports ingenious, colorful lighting in addition to a hodgepodge of images evoking school (a blackboard behind the band sports the song list), 19th-century life and images such as a blue butterfly wing, referencing song lyrics.
Spring Awakening is poetry and emotion brought to painful life. “So dark,” one teen utters as he contemplates a desperate move. But at the same time, it’s so beautiful. The dramatic tension between pain and passion is what’s awakened in this powerful show. It’s a new dynamic, revealing the magnificent potential of musical theater.
SPRING AWAKENING, presented by Broadway Across America, continues through Jan. 24 at the Aronoff Center. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.