One Hundred Years of the Same Old Same Old
What I saw this past weekend at Griffin Theatre Company’s production of the Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik Broadway show was in every sense of the word a modern rock musical, replete with over-amplified, ear-splitting and word-obfuscating sounds masquerading as musical expression. In fact, most sources describe Spring Awakening as an alternative rock musical. Unfortunately, there is no particular agreement on what alternative rock is except loud with lots of twanging guitars and an outgrowth of punk rock.
Despite all of this, Spring Awakening is a provocative and moving experience. The musical follows the plotline of the original Frank Wedekind play rather faithfully and this is probably the great strength of the Broadway version; they started with a compelling story and dropped some songs and dancing into the works to arrive at a more or less winning musical.
Time and Place
As is my custom when I know nothing about a piece I refrain from doing any research or reading about it preferring instead to allow my own reactions guide my original judgments. My original thoughts ran along the lines of dating the piece as being written in the 70s or 80s with a lot of attention paid to teen-aged angst, coming of age issues and the rebellion of youth. The short gay episode struck me as being something tacked on by the current director trying to take advantage of the current fad of having a couple of gay or lesbian characters in a production just to keep everybody happy.
This is wrong from a number of perspectives. Only after I started reading about the musical and the play that is its basis did I come to realize just how far ahead of its time this particular plotline was. The original play was the product of Frank Wedekind, a German playwright noted for his criticism of bourgeois attitudes, especially towards sex. Astonishingly, he wrote the play sometime around 1890 or 1891. Further, all of the parts we might consider “modern” theatrical perversions—masturbation, homosexuality, sadomasochism between teenagers, sexual abuse of children, abortion, rape and suicide—are a part of Wedekind’s original version.
As controversial as Wedekind was during his lifetime his contribution to theater is unquestioned. He anticipated expressionism and made a major contribution to epic theater. At one point he served a nine-month jail term for lèse-majesté (insulting a reigning head of state) brought about by the publication of some of his satirical poems. Wedekind’s two-play Erdgeist (Earth-spirit) was the basis for Alban Berg’s Lulu, one of the twentieth-centuries great operatic masterpieces.
Now that I have the time and place of the original story firmly in mind (late nineteenth century Germany) much of the action of the musical makes a great deal more sense. Izumi Inaba’s marvelous costume designs easily convey both the time and place of the action as well as firmly delineating the differences between the boys and girls that dominate the action and the elder characters who act as foils against which the youthful actors push. The industrial flavor of the set reminds us that at this time in world history the Western nations were seriously pursuing their courses toward industrialization; the age of machines was upon mankind with a vengeance.
Against this backdrop of severely repressed sexuality, the German traditions of pflict und arbeit (duty and work), the rebellious nature of all youth and the grim realities that often invade our everyday existence, the musical proceeds to unwind its tale of tragedy and hope.
Wedekind’s magical story provides a firm and unshakable underpinning for Spring Awakening. What could have made a truly great Broadway production out of this raw material is unfortunately missing. There are really no memorable songs or musical numbers in the over two-hour production. While it is true there is lots of “music,” and a great deal of energetic stomping (Nicole Pellegrino’s efforts at choreography seemed to consist of a great deal of foot stamping, twisting and leaping) what was missing was the feeling that music was making a significant contribution to an already praise-worthy plotline.
Add to this the entirely confusing sound design by Rick Sims and Josh Horvath and one wonders if the original Wedekind play in an English translation wouldn’t have been just as satisfying. For openers, there was way too much amplification of the band. The thundering sounds emanating from the instrumental musicians more than drowned the vocals of most of the singers. To counter this, singers were miked either by passing wireless hand-held instruments around or by wearing wireless transmitters whose outlines were visible under clothing. It’s not clear that all singers were always miked; some appeared to sing without the benefit of any audio assist and these were moments of absolute musical ecstasy. The rest of the time, using amplified singers to overcome the excessive levels of the instrumentalists, words became a jumble of meaningless mumblings that absolutely defied decryption or comprehension.
Some of the best vocal parts occurred as in the final anthem The Song of Purple Summer that found the entire company singing as an ensemble, without any audio assist, so far as I was able to determine. This is what real music is about and should have been used (while suitably subduing the instrumental output) for the entire show.
The room is small, seating only about 100 patrons, so it’s not like filling the Lyric Opera and doesn’t take that kind of voice training. The few times singers did seem to sing against the instrumental accompaniment sans microphone the effect was both pleasing and had plenty of power.
There may be two reasons for using the strange combination of partial audio assist: first, two performances were typically scheduled for Saturday and that alone may have necessitated some help for the youthful singers whose voices are simply not accustomed to that kind of non-stop abuse over an extended period in a single day and second, not all singers are created equal and I’m thinking here specifically of Josh Salt the charismatic Melchior Gabor who ultimately survives to move on with life. The role of Melchior is large and Salt was called upon to sing major portions of about half of all the musical numbers. Salt seemed to have everything in his favor: looks, charisma, acting ability, a willingness to appear partially nude and boundless energy. What he needs some help with is his singing; he has plenty of vocal power but that seems to fail him when he is required to sing for long periods and indeed, toward the end of the show (his second for the day) his voice seemed to grow increasingly tired and less able to project as he might want it to even with the help of an audio assist.
There were plenty of good moments, as well. Josh Salt’s fine contribution has already been noted. Aja Wiltshire’s sensitive portrayal of Wendla, Melchior’s love object, was convincing. Mathew Fletcher’s portrayal of Moritz was inspired as was Fletcher’s singing (his was one of the best voices I hear that evening). Lindsay Leopold’s portrayal of Ilse was alluring to say the least. Ilse’s flight to the life of a Bohemian struck a bell in my own psyche and I found myself wanting to flee with her even though Moritz refused.
Special mention goes to Vanessa Greenway and Larry Baldacci who portrayed a variety of “elders” during the course of the evening. Various parents, school teachers, preachers and ministers, all came to life in the hands of these two veterans of the stage. They provided a strong anchor to the otherwise wild exuberance of the young actors.
Finally, a short but sweet episode between Adam Fane (Hanschen) and Adam Molloy (Ernst) deserves a brief kudo. Despite the late nineteenth century setting, Wedekind chose to present the first stirrings of love between two young men. Fane and Molloy gave it the sincerity it needed without the schmaltz it might have provoked.
It’s a worthwhile show, a good solid production and based on a great story and plot line. If you haven’t seen it, you should and you’ll probably enjoy it as did I. I could be a lot better musically. As I write these lines the show is closing. But if you get a chance to see Spring Awakening even with some of the flaws I have mentioned you won’t be unhappy for the experience.
Spring Awakening produced by The Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit closes today, January 8, 2012 with a 3:00 PM performance.