Nothing depicts teenagers' lives with less authenticity than the typical musical about teenagers' lives. Think about the kids in shows like High School Musical, Hairspray, and even Grease and Bye Bye Birdie, all populated with nuance-free, dumbed-down stereotypes. You get your studs and duds, preps and debs, sluts and hoods, virgins and "hair-hoppers," and when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.
West Side Story in 1957 may have been the first hit Broadway musical to paint contemporary teenagers believably as sexed-up, twitchy, profane and rebellious, even if it did have gang members doing a mean mambo down at the gym, but Frank Wedekind's oft-banned, much-censored 1891 play Spring Awakening had already been there. Wedekind's German schoolboys and girls, denied sex education by repressed parents and teachers, engage in erotic obsessions, masturbation (group and solo), furtive homosexuality and a feverish touch of S and M. They are victims of rape, incest, botched abortion and suicide. William Shakespeare created a couple of mixed-up kids in Romeo and Juliet (the inspiration, of course, for West Side Story), but those two were Danny Zuko and Sandy compared to Wedekind's tormented lovers, Melchior and Wendla, whose initiation into lovemaking has tragic consequences.
So, it took a century for the once-scandalous Spring Awakening to find its audience. Composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/book-writer Steven Sater started workshopping their adaptation of the Wedekind play in 1999. Directed by Michael Mayer, it opened to ecstatic reviews in its off-Broadway incarnation at the intimate Atlantic Theater Company in the summer of 2006 and soon moved to bigger digs on Broadway, where it earned eight 2007 Tony Awards, including best musical. Over the past few years, it's played in London's West End, been translated into Japanese for a run in Tokyo, been sung in Korean in Seoul and in Portuguese in Rio. It's been everywhere, it seems, but Dallas. Before opening here on March 23, the current touring production had come only as close as Fort Worth's Bass Hall last October.Dallas had to get its new Winspear Opera House before we could see Spring Awakening as part of the inaugural season of the Lexus Broadway Series (don't you love how they've branded everything at the Winspear, including the parking garage, staircase and even the stage itself?). With its bare boobs and buns, its center-stage wankery and sexy spanking, and songs titled "Totally Fucked" and "The Bitch of Living," this piece was just too much for Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park. That venue is more comfortable with family-approved fantasies about bitchy teenage witches (Wicked, brooming back for a third visit in May).
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But Spring Awakening is here, at last, in a big way downtown, and it's everything the New York version was, maybe even more. The gorgeous leads, Jake Epstein (as Melchior) and Christy Altomare (Wendla), are subtler, more sensitive actors and have stronger, clearer voices than the Broadway originals, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele (she's now on TV as one of the geeks on Glee, on which Groff will guest star this spring). The whole cast on this tour is gifted with astonishing vocal talent. They're not doing that awful bottom-of-the-tonsils belting that has infected popular musical theater either (call it rampant Lupone-ism). These young singers have finesse, caressing some melodies delicately and attacking others with full-bodied force. In solos, they sing with crystalline clarity, going light on the vibrato, particularly Epstein, who has a falsetto to die for. Singing together on "I Believe" (this show's equivalent to Rent's "Seasons of Love") and, in the finale, "The Song of Purple Summer," the ensemble's harmonizing is goosebump-good—one big, multilayered voice. It's almost unfair that these kids also dance like mad, launching into choreographer Bill T. Jones' explosive, spastic gyrations as if suddenly their shoes and pigtails were on fire.The singing and dancing do different work in Spring Awakening than in most musicals. Grabbing handheld microphones out of their school uniform pockets or seemingly out of thin air, the boys and girls break into Sheik's punk-alt-rock score when they need to let off steam and express anguish or sorrow, their characters singing what they don't know how to say. The driving beats of the onstage band, led by conductor-pianist Kristen Lee Rosenfeld and positioned upstage in full view, add to the rawness as the kids spin and stomp in Jones' frenzied dance moves. In those moments, designer Kevin Adams' lighting splashes everything with blues, reds and golds from neon tubes and a tangle of bulbs and lamps overhead. Even the houselights go up, as though the kids needed to confront all those grown-up faces previously peering at them from the dark.
Spring Awakening is all about that feeling of being young and angry and full of pent-up emotion and nowhere to put it. Balancing the contemporary music with book scenes that retain the quaint tone of Wedekind's original dialogue (including the boys' chanting in Latin of part of The Aeneid), the show splits its personality between the way teens behave with each other and how they act with adults. All the starchy grown-up characters—teachers, doctors, parents, priests—are played by two actors, Angela Reed and John Wojda. Like Charlie Brown's teacher and her "womp-womp" voice, the kids sometimes echo how they hear their elders as a steady chorus of "blah blah blah."
Melchior and Wendla are the central love story (they'll remind you of My So-Called Life's Angela and her crush object, Jordan Catalano). But all the young characters get a song to share individual troubles. Melchior's friend Moritz, played by Taylor Trensch, fears he'll fail to graduate and plans to run away to America to escape his father's wrath. His anthem of defiance is the poignant, pulsating "Don't Do Sadness." He's also sexually frustrated; the hornier he gets, the higher and stiffer his hair. Martha (Sarah Hunt) and Ilse (Steffi D, a 2006 Canadian Idol finalist) sing "The Dark I Know Well," about sexual abuse at home. They all join in on "The Word of Your Body," as haunting a love song as West Side Story's "One Hand, One Heart."
There are moments in Spring Awakening that will take you right to 15 or 16, when you wanted to stomp your heels through the floor to be heard or to sing your pain away because you couldn't express it in words. That's part of the magic of this show. It turns up the volume on the lessons of young heartache and drowns out the noise of adulthood's blah blah blah.