The Tony Award winning musical Spring Awakening divides audiences, but not in the way you might expect. Sure there will always be those who either like or hate it, the basic division, but then, with Spring Awakening, you have audiences who love the music but find the play difficult to sit through, or there are those who enjoy how the original 19th century German play has been adapted but can’t stand the constant interruption of raucous rock.
This new, triumphant production, the result of a collaboration between the Phoenix Theatre and Nearly Naked Theatre, co-directed by Damon Dering and Robert Kolby Harper, manages to bring such clarity to the work that all elements that might have previously divided audiences are now wonderfully blurred to the point where everything blends together to make a perfect whole.
It’s difficult to say exactly where the difference has occurred. Perhaps it’s the venue – the intimacy of the Phoenix Theatre automatically allows audiences to connect with the players much faster than in a more cavernous setting – or maybe it’s the band under Mark 4Man’s direction that allows you to enjoy the music without your ears feeling assaulted by a cacophony of strident rock. In fact, outside of listening to the Broadway CD, this new production allows you the luxury of actually enjoying the many folk-infused elements of the rock score previously buried under a blast of screaming guitars and pulsating drums.
The original play by Frank Wedekind was written in 1892 but was banned for several years in Germany because of its graphic depiction of teenage rape, child abuse, abortion, homosexuality and suicide. The musical doesn’t shy away from these frank portrayals and neither does this production, but that’s exactly as it should be. To remove them or to tone them down, as some productions have done, is to do the audience a disservice. Despite watching some audience members leave the theatre within the first fifteen minutes or so those that remained were rewarded with a surprisingly accomplished production that truly makes Spring Awakening an important piece of musical theatre and illustrates why the show was nominated for eleven Tonys, winning eight.
The show’s basic message is showing the dangers of not educating youngsters about sex. When fourteen year old Wendla asks her mother to teach her the facts of life the mother is at first appalled to even be asked, but then narrows everything down to the simple fact that a woman must love her husband with all her heart, which tells Wendla nothing. The result of this absurd conversation will eventually be devastating. Even when the doctor arrives to find out later why Wendla is not feeling well all the doctor can say in front of the adolescent is that she has slight anemia and will be fine, but then tells her mother in private that the girl is expecting. The puritanical mannerisms of these pious adults won’t even allow the doctor to use the word ‘pregnant’ in front of the clearly distraught and confused teenager.
Musically, the show is a joy to hear. Each cast member, no exception, sings with an assuredness of professionalism that not only fleshes out Steven Slater’s descriptive lyrics and Duncan Sheik’s melodious score to a new level I had yet to hear in a live performance, but when these voices blend together as an ensemble, the first thought that ran through my head was that this is how the Spring Awakening score should always sound. When the cast retrieves a hand-held mic from their inside jacket pockets, as the boys do in the song The Bitch of Living and throughout the show, it’s as if they’re pulling a lever that propels them head first into today’s twenty-first century openness, freeing them, if only for a few minutes, from their despotic, gothic surroundings, allowing them to indulge in raw teenage angst.
I’ve seen the show several times before, including the national touring production, but watching Spring Awakening at the Phoenix this past weekend felt like seeing the show for the first time.