It is extremely unusual for me to go into a play (or movie, for that matter) without any knowledge behind what I would be seeing. It turns out that Spring Awakening is an immensely powerful, and extremely adult, portrayal of adolescent sexuality set in 19th Century Germany. Didn’t see that one coming.
Having began life as a play in 1891, Spring Awakening has evolved into a thoroughly modern “rock musical.” Told from the point of view of a select group of students, the play is about the gradual realization of sexuality and the consequences therein. The themes are timeless, and it feels completely natural to have this historical story told with a modern sensibility. While the characters and dialogue are all firmly rooted in the past, the music, dance and overall look of the production are very much in the here and now.
In terms of staging, this is a very unusual production. The music is all performed by a very small orchestra, dead center at the back of the stage. Consisting of only a piano, guitar, bass, drums, cello, violin and viola, these instruments provide mostly minimalistic accompaniment. This helps provide a driving power to the music, giving it a bit more of an edge than your standard power ballad. The cast even jumps into the orchestra occasionally, effectivly destroying any fourth wall that may be present.
Adding to this unique experience is the fact that there is only one set for the entire production. Because of this, most of the cast is on stage the entire time. They have seating on the side of the stage, where select audience members get to watch the show. When any cast member is not part of a scene, they are usually in these seats with those audience members. It’s moderately distracting at first, but ends up bringing a really unique look to the production. Locations are created through minimal manipulation of props, and the dialogue dictates where the story is at any given moment. The only real visual cues are changes in lighting, and the work here is utterly fantastic. There is nothing subtle about the stage lighting. Constantly changing, the tone and energy of each scene is enhanced by these dramatic shifts. In fact, one of the many Tony Awards this production won in 2007 was for Best Lighting Design. The lighting really services the story and it’s really easy to see why they won.
In fact, Spring Awakening ended up winning a total of eight Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. While the music isn’t all entirely memorable, every song works in service to the story. There are select standouts, but most of the songs are more about the power and emotion of the scene. Some of the story arcs that these characters go through are really intense, and the music works perfectly to guide these characters through the necessary transitions.
By the end of the play, all of the characters have gone through major changes; ones that I imagine would be very difficult to portray. All of the actors are up to the challenge. Nobody is particularly great or awful in terms of the singing, but they all are fantastic in the way they play their roles. This is a challenging story, and it has to take a lot of guts for these actors to expose themselves emotionally and physically on stage like they do. Keep in mind, if this were a film, it would definitey be Rated R. I was surprised at the frank sexuality on stage, and while it was occasionally uncomfortable to watch, I have to appreciate the commitment that everybody brought to their roles. I also found it interesting that one man and one woman played every adult character in the entire play, sometimes having to switch within a scene. Along with the adolescent roles, these two actors put a lot of commitment into what were obviously very difficult roles.
This is not a play for everybody. It is a challenging work, and sometimes very difficult to watch. While there is a running story throughout, it feels more like a character study than a standard narrative. This is all about growth, and there is a maturity to the writing that is very unusual. Again, I have to reiterate, things get very graphic on occasion. But this is powerful story, and one whose power is enhanced by these moments. Personally, I found some of this excessive, but I can see the rationale behind including these moments. A very adult story, I highly recommend this for a mature audience. I would definitely suggest leaving the kids at home for this one.
Tickets are available at http://www.broadwayla.org, at the Box Office or by calling (800) 982-2787.