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Something—I’m not sure if it was the guy with the swoopy, shiny, soft-serve hairdo or the steamy, torchy duet about child sexual abuse or the 6-foot Teutonic blond spreading his legs and spanking one out in a centerstage spotlight—but something about Spring Awakening made me think, “Hey, not your average Broadway musical.”
But that’s old news, right? This is a show about puberty-addled adolescents in a community so old-school it still likes to talk about storks, a musical whose 2006 debut provoked many an excited comment about both its story—a rococo tangle of sex and shame and queers, S&M and suicide and abortion, written back in the 1890s and long suppressed—and that story’s brash new packaging, which intercuts Duncan Sheik’s decidedly contemporary indie-rock songs with the formal cadences and crisp consonants of 19th-century dialogue. It’s ballsy, and it’s incredibly unlikely, and it works astonishingly well.
What’s new and good: how sharp, how solid, how tight this road production is. Granted it’s hardly had time to go stale; this is just the third stop for the national tour. But damn, those crisp-ass consonants snap; the light cues, all six billion of them, trip like clockwork; scenes button up tight when they’re done.
Best of all is the fierce and focused energy that drives both Bill T. Jones’ choreography—a convulsive, restless, athletic vocabulary of movement, like bottled adolescent maleness suddenly uncorked—and the carefully orchestrated stage traffic that turns all but the quietest book scenes into thrilling potential pileups.
And that tightness is critical, because Michael Mayer’s staging relies for its pop on hundreds of little details: the way a fidgety boy explodes out of his schoolroom chair precisely on the downbeat, the way a wide-eyed, wild-haired teen caroms down a short staircase, the way one prim, constipated teacher trades outraged expostulations with another across an expanse of stage. Mayer deserves the initial kudos for shaping all that business, but it’s his disciplined cast that’s still delivering, minute by minute, and it’s his (presumably disciplinarian) stage-management team that deserves all the credit such folks don’t usually get for keeping it all together.
The smallish band, onstage throughout, makes a gratifyingly big noise for the snow’s most anarchic numbers—the cheerfully trashy wanker anthem “The Bitch of Living,” the bouncy, Rent-y, thickly-harmonized “My Junk,” the defiant “Don’t Do Sadness.” It’s versatile enough to scale that sound down convincingly, though, for folky-feeling guitar ballads like the curtain-raiser “Mama Who Bore Me” and the climactic, melancholy “Whispering.”
If there’s anything to quibble about, it’s that leading man Jake Epstein, who’s got plenty of the smoldering charisma required to play the free-thinking alpha-male adventurer Melchior Gabor, still seems a little vocally tentative. (Not so the other central characters: Christy Altomare, as Melchior’s doomed love interest Wendla, and Blake Bashoff as the neurotic, hilarious, tragic Moritz. Other rock-solid performances come courtesy of Henry Stram and Angela Reed, playing the variously repressive adults in the kids’ straitjacketed German town, and Andy Mientus as that preening, predatory blond.)
Other caveats: Sheik’s songs have a way of ending obliquely, which can be both intriguing (dramatically) and frustrating (emotionally). And once you realize that the habit persists all the way through to “The Song of Purple Summer,” the glowing, string-warmed chorale that brings the cast to the footlights one final time, the temptation is to wonder if those sidelong musical goodbyes are a choice or a crutch; maybe the guy just couldn’t figure out how to put a button on a number?
Then there’s the story, or at least the one Steven Sater has reworked from Franz Wedekind’s original. It can’t sustain its surprise-a-minute momentum once the principal relationships, and the dangers that will destroy them, are established. After the Act 1 closer—a gorgeously staged emotional roller-coaster of a scene that’s either a seduction or a rape, depending on what you think Wendla knows about her own body and her own desires—a certain predictability, and even a whiff of sentimentality, creep in.
Damn if I care, though. Spring Awakening is a near-impossibly stylish show, designed to within an inch of its attitudinal life—the lighting budget alone would probably fund an entire season at most D.C. companies—and its cast seems hell-bent on igniting the very oxygen in the Eisenhower Theater. And given that its insistently angry message involves the observation that the urge toward life will always and everywhere meet with establishment opposition, I can’t think of a better place for the air to come alive with tongues of flame.