Theater Review - Spring Awakening gives punk rock-style generational wake-up call

Actor's Express production gets stuck in an awkward phase

Moritz Stiefel, the most troubled of the restless teens in Actor's Express's musical Spring Awakening, looks like a Frankenstein monster created by cold parenting and oppressive education. Bedeviled by erotic dreams, Moritz (Greg Bosworth) neglects his class work and struggles to keep his emotions under control. In a physical manifestation of his turbulent psyche, he sports a black Mohawk with bangs that hang across his face like a crow's wing. Moritz seems to have outgrown his clothes and practically his whole body. When he sings, his intensity finds release in spasmodic gestures.

Winner of eight Tony Awards, Spring Awakening plays like a roaring, fast-tempo cover song of an old standard. Lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik adapted the plot and setting of Frank Wedekind's original 1892 play about teenagers painfully coming of age in an oppressive German town. In the new musical, the kids express their passion through song, frequently in Broadway-style interpretations of punk rock. The musical concept draws attention to touches such as the boys' school uniforms, which with their tight jackets and narrow ties recall London Mod fashions of the early '60s. Spring Awakening emulates the explosive energy and overdramatic attributes of adolescents, as if the musical hasn't grown out of its own awkward phase.

The teachers drill the children in Greek and Latin but deny them rudimentary sex education. In the opening number, "Mama Who Bore Me," naïve Wendla (Kylie Brown) regards her blossoming body in a mirror, but when she finishes singing, she can't get her mother (LaLa Cochran) to reveal the basic facts of life. The only youth in the know appears to be star student Melchior (Jordan Craig), who sees through the hypocrisies of the "parent-ocracy," counsels Moritz and falls in love with Wendla.

Spring Awakening features a five-piece band. Cellist Jessica Kornhoff and violinist Sean Casey lend an old-world, bittersweet quality to ballads such as Wendla and Melchior's "The Word of Your Body." Pulsing, thrumming rock arrangements best define the play, and in "The Bitch of Living," the schoolboys sit at their desks but nod their heads and bob their shoulders in time with the beat. Youthful rage finally erupts in Act Two's "Totally Fucked," with furious, foot-stomping choreography that channels the energy of a mosh pit.

The musical takes almost a checklist approach to sexual issues and features a gay affair between two boys as well as an overwrought number about sexual abuse, "The Dark I Know Well," featuring Christen C. Orr and Stephanie Friedman. Director Freddie Ashley taps the play's rebellious spirit but loses a little control near the end of the second act, when the melodramatic twists pile up at an almost comedic rate.

All of the cast members carry their own microphones, so the more soulful group numbers resemble 'N Sync more than the Sex Pistols. Overall, Spring Awakening's contemporary musical styles cleverly convey the frustrations of 19th-century youth. The flip side of the play's self-conscious incongruity is to imply that the play's oppressive setting mirrors contemporary attitudes toward young people and society. The comparison doesn't hold up, though. You can imagine self-absorbed Moritz wannabes getting all gothed-up and declaiming, "Is the environment for today's adolescents really all that different from the one in Spring Awakening?" But the answer is yes: It's totally different.

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