SALT LAKE CITY — Before I can begin this review, I feel like I need to tell you a few things about me: I fell in love with Spring Awakening when I discovered the original cast recording back in 2007. It was something so different than the musicals I usually loved; it had so much passion and energy and pure desperation that resonated so purely and concretely in my little heart. I had the opportunity to see the show for the first time year and half ago and felt like I had discovered that incredible piece of art all over again. The show was earth-shattering and brilliant and everything wonderful about theater. I love Spring Awakening. I love the characters. I love the music. I love the messages. And I loved how everyone got something so different out of their experiences with the piece, whether those experiences were with the soundtrack, YouTube videos, or the stage show itself. It is a musical chock full of meaning.
Spring Awakening: A New Musical is based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 German play. It tells the story of a few adolescents screaming to grow up only to be forced back into childhood by their parents and teachers. They sing the songs and tell the world a story of youthful innocence and the disastrous consequences of ignorance as they attempt to navigate new emotions and challenges with no wisdom or aid from their elders. That means they’re dealing with romance, religion, failure, sex, abortion, rape, abuse, homosexuality, and mostly deciding when to be obedient, when to conform, and when to think for themselves.
To those who love the show as much as I do (or to everyone, rather), I wish I could tell you great things about this national tour production. I went in excited to experience the story again, and I wish I could tell you that I felt the swell of emotion during my favorite songs and that I fell in love with the message all over again, but those would be lies. And I really hate and sincerely hesitate to discourage anyone from partaking of this beautiful story, but I can’t ignore what I saw onstage tonight.
Let me just get this out: I felt like they were just trying to shock us. There were very few moments when any sort of story or message came through from the acting, as if their only motivation in putting on this show was the opportunity to swear a lot and have sex onstage. And I’m sorry, but that’s not why I go to the theater. I go for a message; I go to find meaning and to learn something about the world and about myself.
What was the message, national tour production? What were you hoping we would all walk away with? I spoke to some other audience members, both who had seen the show before and who hadn’t, and all of them commented on the disconnect that existed in the characters’ relationships, and in the lack of fluidity throughout the show. I wonder if the disconnect occurred because the cast featured the main character’s, Melchior, understudy (Jeff Ostermeuller performed in place of Christopher Wood), who created a rather unforgiving and hard-to-sympathize-with Melchior. Wendla then appeared to be a helpless victim manipulated by Melchior instead of the person able to make half the decisions in their relationship.
Regardless, the show was clunky. The choreography seemed unpolished. Many characters’ choices seemed forced and crude; whether that was because of the actor or Lucy Skilbeck’s direction I couldn’t tell. I had high expectations for a national tour cast; I wasn’t expecting awkward direction, off-pitch singing, or distracting exaggerated annunciation.
Luckily, many elements from the original Broadway production were still very effective, most notably the design. Scenic designer Christine Jones, Costume designer Susan Hilferty, Sound Designer Brian Ronan, and especially lighting designer Kevin Adams (who won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Lighting of a Musical) created an incredible world for the musical that carefully existed on the edge of theater magic and reality. They designed the show so that the audience felt part of the world–because a few audience members sat onstage and because the actors crept back into reality by sitting in the audience when they weren’t in a scene. The band gave their all to the performance; the music was gorgeous; but it was the lighting design that took my breath away. Carefully constructed silhouettes highlighted dramatic moments; floods of red light or blue light enhanced emotions; and haunting white and blue light bulbs made sure the audience was caught up in a world of adolescent emotion.
Let me also acknowledge, the beautiful performances by Coby Getzug as Moritz and Courtney Markowitz as Ilsa. Their stories absolutely shone against the flat, amateur performances of other lead actors. Anytime Getzug or Markowitz sang, I was onto the the edge of my seat hanging on their every carefully delivered, emotionally-charged word. Thank goodness someone realized the gravity of the story they were telling.
I commend the Broadway Across America for featuring such a controversial show in an extremely conservative environment, and I hoped it could be an opportunity for audiences here to experience a really poignant piece of theater. I only wish the overall production could have presented us with a more mature show.
So now the big question: should I go see this show? To those who aren’t as familiar with the show, do your research. Know what you’re getting in to. This isn’t the particular production to take your ultra-conservative parent to try to convince them to love theater; the show’s extremely graphic nature is not for the lighthearted. To those who have loved Spring Awakening for years, by all means go enjoy the brilliant set and lighting design. Hear your favorite songs set against a poignant story. Perhaps your night will feature the non-understudy Melchior and the show will be brilliant. So go. See it. (And let me know what you think!)