At WaterTower Theatre, a Spring Awakening Not Quite Awake Enough.
For Spring Awakening to work its magic, it needs young performers who look hot, sing hotter and radiate sexuality with the heat of a thousand suns. At Addison's WaterTower Theatre, where the first local production of the Tony-winning musical is now running, the temperature's rising.
It's exciting to see this many new faces debut on the North Texas theater scene in one show. Many of the 16 young actors and actresses in the cast are on the WaterTower stage for the first time. Some are still in high school or college, getting their first shot at professional theater. Several are recent college grads. Pretty to look at, yes, they're that. And ripe with talent that they're twitching to show off in a sexy rock musical.
So why does it seem as if they're straining against a too-short leash? Director Terry Martin's production feels straitlaced and looks almost too pretty, with only a hint of the erotic tension generated by the great Broadway performances and in the strong tour that came to the Winspear Opera House in 2010. This Spring Awakening doesn't go to all the risky places it needs to as it tells its overlapping stories of first loves, fiery hormonal impulses and tragic mistakes. Gone are the flashes of bare flesh in the scene that ends the first act mid-orgasm. Student lovers Melchior and Wendla now lose their virginity fully clothed.
What's even more disappointing is that the songs, as played by music director Mark Mullino's onstage band, sound de-sexed, too. Where are the chunky, clashing guitar chords on the lead-in to "The Bitch of Living"? The crashing cymbals and teasing snares on "My Junk"? Instead we hear heavy strings and lush keyboards. They're played well, but come on: The dark hums of a cello don't say rock, sex or youthful angst. ("Eleanor Rigby" notwithstanding.)
Spring Awakening, above all, must rock. It should shake the rafters and make your molars vibrate. Composer Duncan Sheik's 19-song score is a beaut, all throbby-horny-pumping one minute, zoomily sentimental afterglow the next. Some songs do explode, others whisper, including the one called "Whispering." Book and lyrics by Steven Sater, who adapted Frank Wedekind's much-censored 1891 play about sex-crazed German school kids, also vary tone and rhythm. He's kept the polite, archaic wording of the dialogue scenes, then interrupted with lyrics expressing the young characters' inner turmoil in cruder 21st century terms. Like "You're Fucked," the second act's noisy ode to getting caught doing bad things: "There's a moment you know ... you're fucked. Not an inch more room ... to self-destruct."
"My Junk," sung by the girls, hits at the heart of carrying the baggage of an unrequited crush. "We've all got our junk," they sing, "and my junk is you." "The Bitch of Living" is the boys' anthem and the number that shakes Spring Awakening to attention in the first act. Dully reciting lines of Virgil's Aeneid in Latin under the gaze of a stern schoolmaster — played by Steven Pounders, one of two older actors handling all the adult roles — the six schoolboys reach into the pockets of their old-fashioned uniforms, pull out hand mics and leap onto stiff-backed chairs to rage about a range of pubescent fantasies. One's obsessed with his piano teacher's breasts; another has a thing for his schoolmate, whom he spies on in the gym shower. On the outside, they're well-behaved 19th-century lads in woolen plus-fours. But as the electric guitars wail behind them (they're supposed to wail, anyway), the kids' ids sing out, revealing the rock-star bravado they really wish they had. "It's the bitch of living and living in your head," they sing. "It's the bitch of living and sensing God is dead."
Each of the young characters has his or her moment to bitch about life. Martha (Simone Gundy) is being molested at home. Ernst (Joshua Gonzales) quivers in the presence of gay seducer Hanschen (Matt Tolbert), who takes advantage of his easy prey. Lovely Ilse (Kayla Carlyle) has left school and joined an artists' commune, where she's a toy for older men. If it seems like mix-and-match teenage dilemmas, at least it's not Dawson's Creek with show tunes. It's more like Hair with a better plot and wittier lyrics.
The small-town teens in this story are desperate to understand their bodies and their world, but uptight grown-ups refuse to give straight answers, spouting pious platitudes or just bullshit myths. When innocent Wendla Bergman (Erica Harte) asks her mother (Lulu Ward, the other adult playing all the parents and teachers) where babies come from, she gets a runaround about storks and mommies and daddies sharing love. No surprise then that after an impromptu encounter with the more sexually informed Melchior Gabor (Jonathan W. Gilland), Wendla doesn't believe she's pregnant. Nobody's explained baby-making to her, nor does she understand when her mother drags her to a shady doctor for a "procedure" to unmake it.
Most troubled of all is Moritz Stiefel (Adam Garst), deathly afraid of failing out of high school — and unaware that teachers are conspiring to flunk him to keep the class number even — and tormented by dreams of women's body parts. More than the designated heartthrob Melchior, who in this production is a bit of a preppy lump, Moritz is the soul of Spring Awakening. As its angriest, weirdest kid, and the one we keep hoping will just snap out of it, he gets the two best songs, "And Then There Were None" and "Don't Do Sadness," the latter a lilting mix of melancholy and protest. Garst, his dark hair clenched into a stiff shelf above his handsome, angular face, growls and squeals into the microphone, twisting his body inward and then flinging out a geometric flash of arms and legs. (De Los Santos' jumpy choreography works best on this actor.) Garst connects emotionally with the audience and dares to edge into the danger zone the others tiptoe around. Out of a group of actors who all sing and act with impressive maturity, his is the performance you'll take home.
Among the girls, it's Kayla Carlyle's wistful Ilse who registers. With her wavy blond hair falling around her tiny torso, she looks angelic as her worldly wise character begs Moritz to play childhood games they used to share. Their duet, a blend of his "Don't Do Sadness" and her "Blue Wind," blows every other number in this otherwise muted production to smithereens.
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