Orpheum Theatre. Photo by George Heinrich, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.
"Wasn't it just here?" a friend asked when I told her I was going to see Spring Awakening on Saturday. When I checked and saw it was here less than two years ago, I wasn't surprised. [Read Jay Gabler's January 2009 review in the Daily Planet.] The musical has a compelling score and its mature subject matter combined with its attractive young talent has earned it a strong following among the younger crowd. Still, I couldn't also help but wonder if it was returning so soon because it may not be so compelling a show five years from now.
Spring Awakening, which returned for a short run at the Orpheum Theatre over this past weekend, is at its simplest a coming-of-age story. (In the interest of full transparency, I should mention that I'm on the board for The Scene, a group for young arts enthusiasts, at the Hennepin Theatre Trust.) The 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical is based on the controversial 1891 German play of the same name, which was banned in its time due to its depiction of themes such as masturbation, incest, homosexuality, abortion, S&M, and more. Duncan Sheik's rock musical attempts to amp up those themes by setting the characters' inner monologues to catchy pop tunes. As a whole, the show's music has always been better than its book. The moments of dialogue, while sweet and insightful, are quickly overshadowed the moment one of the characters pulls a microphone out of his or her shirt and begins to sing.
The show centers on Melchior Gabor (Christopher Wood), a well-read student who writes a 10-page essay—with illustrations—to share his sexual knowledge with a male schoolmate. Melchior also shares his knowledge, using a more hands-on teaching method, with the naive Wendla. (When she later learns she is pregnant, she doesn't know how it happened.) The show has become infamous for the breast-baring and pelvic-thrusting sex-swing scene that closes the first act and opens the second, but on the Orpheum's large stage, the scene's impact seems lost.
Spring Awakening's set is something to talk about. Various fixtures hang on the wall and neon rods are used in various songs to change the set from 19th century Germany to a modern-day rock concert. Another technique used to connect the universal themes across centuries is the unexpected placement of cast members hidden among the audience members who sit in select seats on stage. I always find it entertaining to watch the reactions of unknowing patrons on stage when the theatergoer next to them jumps onto a chair and breaks into song. Wearing modern clothing, these four actors lend their voices and head-banging to certain songs and create a bridge from the characters on stage to the audience. However, the problem with connecting the piece to modern issues is that the show risks losing relevance as our own society changes. In contrast, Spring Awakening's oft-cited predecessor, Rent, may ironically be more timeless because it's content simply to address the issues of its own era.
The cast of the touring production is young, but talented. Still, they seem to be living in the shadows of those who have played the roles before them (I've seen the show twice before, including with the original Broadway cast) and never seem confident enough to make the roles their own. Conversely, in the adult male and female roles, Mark Poppleton and Sarah Kleeman embrace the opportunity presented to them. As Wendla, (a role created by Glee's Lea Michele) Elizabeth Judd is sweet and endearing, but she seems to be set on doing what she was told, a trait similar to her ill-fated character. Christopher Wood is charming as Melchior and has a strong voice. In the role of Moritz, Coby Getzug does a good job of balancing humor with his character's insecurity.
While the touring production has already come and gone, don't fret; I'm sure it will find its way back to the Twin Cities in a short amount of time.
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