I’ve been pretty clueless about any Broadway musicals that were written since the days when Rent was still considered fresh. My awareness of the musical Spring Awakening comes from a conversation with a colleague a few years ago who was annoyed when songs from its cast recording came over the musical theater stream she would listen to at work. I think her words were something along the lines of “I hate it when people write things just for shock value.” Curious about what she was talking about, I looked it up and was intrigued to learn that Bill T. Jones did the choreography for it. I love Bill T. Jones. A lot. He thinks deeply through motion. I jump at opportunities to see his work live. But his isn’t a choreographic style that really makes me think “Broadway” you know? Anyway, even though I was fairly certain that OnStage Atlanta’s production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater’s musical wouldn’t feature Jones’ choreography, I figured if it was interesting enough for Jones to get involved then I’d like to check it out.
I think that this was my first time going to anything produced by OnStage Atlanta. The space they are in is apparently new for them. It has a pretty nice lobby and the auditorium is pleasantly intimate. The stage isn’t large but it’s not the smallest in Atlanta and it seems fairly well outfitted. The lighting design for this show by…someone who was in the program that I left at the theater but who is not credited on the website…was pretty straight forward with a few specials that were effective enough. The choreography was also fairly decent standard fare and also by someone who was in the program but not the website. The stage design was pretty minimalist: there was a black screen back-drop that hid the band behind the stage and a large oak in the middle of it. To either side were two-tier risers. Some boxes served as various kinds of furniture throughout the show and there were some chairs brought in and out as appropriate. Costuming was somewhat based on the standard clothing of teenagers of the late 19th century. It implied the period more than representing it, which was definitely good enough for the production. Overall, the stagecraft was decent and appropriate to the show and the space: it complemented it well and never got in the way.
The play itself is pretty good. The story is adapted from a late 19th century German play whose title translates to Spring Awakening. From what I can tell from a cursory bit of research, the musical sticks pretty close to the original. It’s a coming of age story featuring a number of teenagers going through teenage things, mostly revolving around sex and sexuality. It touches briefly on a number of stories, but the core of the play centers somewhat on Melchior Gabor, his best friend Moritz Stiefel, and Gabor’s love-interest, Wendla Bergman. Gabor is basically a Young Hegelian in the making, an intellectual who stands up for his friends and speaks out against the adult authority figures in his life. Stiefel is a bit of a schlub who isn’t doing well in school and is not taking puberty well. He doesn’t seem to quite understand the sexual desires that are plaguing him. Bergman is to some extent an overly-sheltered naif who, at fourteen, still can’t convince her exceptionally prudish mother to tell her where babies come from. At the same time, she seems to have thoughts that go a lot deeper and feels sheltered to the point that she at one point proclaims that she’s never genuinely felt anything. She loses her virginity to Gabor, which is something she does willingly in the musical but is the result of rape in the original play.1 Without giving away too much, everyone’s life falls apart and it’s all really quite tragic. Sex is a big part of it, but the troubles surrounding it are treated mostly a symptom of adolescence and a stifling social environment. I’d say that it explored some pretty complex issues of adolescence in a very thoughtful and mature way.
It’s a strong story and very moving play. I enjoyed Sheik’s music and thought that it was performed well under the direction of Paul Tate. The dialog was generally good and sometimes excellent. Slater’s lyrics, however, left a lot to be desired. They were just too simplistic. They managed to convey the correct emotions, were appropriate to the story, and they fit with the music well, but there was a lack of depth or cleverness that left me wanting. I felt that the best of the songs were just acceptable while the worst bordered on insipidness. I find it kind of surprising that the original cast recording was ever popular; I suspect that this has more to do with Sheik than Slater. The songs are only expressions of the emotional reactions the characters are having to the dialog, which is what really drives the play forward. And, overall, the story itself was strong enough and expressed well enough for me to enjoy the play.
The performances were good. Some people felt a bit hammish, but honestly I blame that more on playing a role in a musical written for Broadway on such a small stage than anything else because those few moments of hammishness didn’t feel too out of place in the broader context of the play. The singing was a bit uneven: a few of the actors had somewhat different singing styles and sometimes things didn’t quite mesh as well as they might have. The music is rock-based, so there was a lot of room for variation and I didn’t feel that these differences in style threw things off too much. The acoustics of the theater didn’t favor my seat left of center in the front-row: everyone was singing over my head. I didn’t lose terribly many words most of the time, though Emily Winchell as Wendla Bergman could be hard to hear. Her voice was sweet, though a little weak; it seem to come from the bottom of her throat moreso than her diaphragm.
Charlie Miller’s direction did a good job of bringing the musical to such a small stage. However, he really blew it at the end. He had them reprise the very upbeat song “Totally Fucked” at the end of their curtain call. As I mentioned above, the play is really quite tragic and the audience is left with a bevy of heavy thoughts and emotions to sift through. Ending it with a reprise of a big comedic number filled with brilliant lyrics like “blah blah blah” repeated ad nauseam basically wrecks the impact. When I see a director do something like this, I think the following: 1) they don’t respect their audience enough to let them process the play; 2) they either don’t understand the play very well or just don’t understand that people go to plays like this to feel something; and 3) they lack the artistic integrity to let the message of the play stand on its own. I felt kind of bad when James Thomas, who played Georg, made to entice me to sing along to the “Blah blah blah” chorus. Normally I’m happy to sing but this was just so wrong-headed that I just gave him a sideways look. If he ever finds me out and about then I totally owe him a song…just not one from this musical.
1. There seemed to me to be vestiges of the original rape in the dialog and I found that the whole encounter felt not quite mutual, though I’m not sure that it was intentionally performed as such. Plus, the character of Bergmann is only fourteen and doesn’t know where babies come from and almost certainly doesn’t know enough about sex to provide informed consent whereas Gabor’s knowledge of the subject is well established at this point to the extent that he has essayed on the subject. (back)