Sex, shrugs, and rock 'n' roll
Composer Duncan Sheik has described "Spring Awakening," the Tony-winning musical he wrote with Steven Sater, as "a rock concert where a play breaks out." That feels exactly right - and it also describes exactly the kind of energy the show needs if it's to succeed: the energy of rock, not musical theater, and of hard rock at that.
Sheik's score certainly delivers, and so do the structure and concept of Sater's book and lyrics, which take Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of sexual and spiritual exploration in a provincial German town and blow it wide open with contemporary language and emotions, expressed in Sheik's songs. But the touring production, which opened Wednesday night at the Colonial, doesn't fully deliver the visceral punch that Sheik and Sater's work promises to provide.
Even at a diminished level, it's true, "Spring Awakening" is a highly charged and often thrilling event. Sheik's musical idiom ranges from thrashing, furious anthems to delicate, folky ballads, and he and Sater weave them into an intricate but clearly articulated story of adolescent rebellion, parental repression, love, and loss.
Because of that very power, though, it's frustrating when this production doesn't move us as much as it should. Part of the problem is that the onstage band sounds curiously subdued. This seems to be a failing of acoustics more than performance - the band looks as if it's rocking out, but somehow the house just does not rock along with it.
And, with the music less commanding than it should be, Bill T. Jones's fascinatingly idiosyncratic choreography sometimes starts to feel overdone: Why are these kids stomping so hard when the music's not stomping with them? Some of the rock-concert moves, too - particularly a coltish little kick-stomp that Steffi D, a "Canadian Idol" finalist playing the bohemian outcast Ilse, employs to excess - seem a little out of place when we don't quite get that rock-concert vibe going on.
But it's another poppy performer who causes the greatest difficulty, because he's at the center of the action. Kyle Riabko is cute and bubbly and, in short, what a colleague calls "boy-bandy," but none of these attributes is what's called for in the role of Melchior, the furiously questioning young man whose refusal to play by the rules drives both the romantic heights and the tragic lows of the story. Melchior needs to be alluring, commanding, and a little dangerous - not cute.
Fortunately, the other male lead, Blake Bashoff, brings a more appropriate range of qualities - awkwardness, repressed rage, confusion, and lust - to Moritz, the Brillo-haired boy who turns to Melchior for the sexual information that neither his nor any of the other parents are willing to provide. And as Wendla, the sweet but passionate girl who gets a much more direct sexual education from Melchior, Christy Altomare has a purity of voice and spirit that beautifully illuminate the character. Her rendering of "Mama Who Bore Me" opens the show with a quiet, soulful shiver of true feeling.
It's the quieter, more delicate songs, in fact, that come across most successfully here. "The Word of Your Body" creates a real sense of the chemistry between Melchior and Wendla, and "The Song of Purple Summer" closes the show on a note of genuine poetry. As for the rockers, the opening-night audience went wild over "Totally [Expletive]," but even that most rousing of rousing rock songs didn't seem as cathartic as it should.
Perhaps because the music wasn't carrying me off as completely as I wanted it to, I found myself brooding more than is perhaps healthy on the sexual politics of the show. For a piece that's purportedly in favor of freedom and empowerment and blah blah blah, "Spring Awakening" has an awful lot more to offer teenage boys than it does girls. The boys onstage get to do some pretty vigorous depictions of masturbation and intercourse, while the girls are confined to delicate stroking of their waists and, occasionally, the outer perimeters of their breasts. It's almost as passive, and as male-directed (to say nothing of unarousing, unless they're built differently from the girls I know), as the way Wendla merely lies back and lets Melchior do his, um, awakening.
It's also odd to think that these wild young things would be, oh, my great-grandparents. Kind of gives a different twist to their teenage angst, doesn't it, to realize that they'd grow up to be the parents that our parents' parents were rebelling against? (And you can add another layer - or two - to that if you're an actual teenager right now.)
By juxtaposing 19th-century scenes with 21st-century songs, "Spring Awakening" edges toward acknowledging that irony. But it also insists on seeing the adults surrounding these kids as universally hypocritical, repressive, and blind. You can get away with that at a rock concert. When the music fades, though, it's good to have something a little more complex to think about.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.