Theater Review: Peter Marks on 'Spring Awakening' at the Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

It's a lot hotter inside the Kennedy Center these days, and the thermometer hasn't budged one bit. The altered state is a matter of tone rather than climate, its source the turbulent stylings of the Eisenhower Theater's new summer tenant: that splendidly soul-stirring musical of raging teenage hormones, "Spring Awakening."

Thanks to the array of serene ballads and punkish anthems by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, it's a lot cooler in the Eisenhower, too. In the footsteps of "Rent," the Tony-winning "Spring Awakening" has developed its own cadre of young fans -- members of "The Guilty Ones," after a song in the show -- who no doubt relate to the vivacious score and the urgent story, about youth held captive to a society that just doesn't understand.

"Spring Awakening" manages to be one of those musicals that can be enjoyed by the current high school and college cognoscenti and also older folk raised on a mixed diet of rock and show tunes. The tale gets ever so steamy (and better suited to kids who have already taken sex ed). But the evening is by no means exploitative or prurient. The attempt here is to express in the electronic sound of today the ache of eternal adolescent rage and longing, pain that resounds from long-ago yesterdays to far-off tomorrows.

The touring production that has moved into the Eisenhower for the month is a more than reasonable facsimile of the Broadway version that shuttered in January after a two-year run. The voices are not uniformly as supple as those of the original New York cast, although Christy Altomare's charming Wendla is beautifully sung, and Sarah Hunt and Steffi D's rendition of the haunting song of sexual abuse, "The Dark I Know Well," is an eye-and-ear-opening improvement on previous incarnations.

Still, some of the harmonies in the ensemble songs of sexual discovery, "My Junk" and "Touch Me," are sounding a bit rough on the road, and a few of the fresh-faced actors are straining to project above the onstage band. (Maybe it's a balance problem in the amplifiers?) It could be, too, that everyone is adjusting to the show's new leading man, Jake Epstein, who absolutely has the heroic countenance for the carnally driven defiance of Melchior Gabor, but whose vocal performance is still at times a work in progress.

The plot concerns the igniting of passion in Wendla and Melchior, a pair of teens living in a socially and sexually repressive village in Germany in the late 19th century. (The musical is based on an 1891 cautionary -- and at the time scandalous -- play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind.) The point of view is exclusively that of the town's young people: The parents and teachers -- all of them well played by just two actors, Angela Reed and Henry Stram -- are narrow-minded and unforgiving and hellbent on keeping the young folk uninformed about things they desperately need to know. First and foremost, about the meaning of all that's changing in their hearts and loins.

Ignorance is the opposite of bliss in "Spring Awakening." It first engenders frustration, then anger, then tragedy. This idea is developed by composer Sheik and lyricist Sater in an intentionally anachronistic rock score, which suggests in the act of suffering in secret, a moving, melodious universality.

And of course the show underlines, too, the responsibility of parents in every age not simply to let children speak, but also to hear what they are trying to say.

The canny staging by Michael Mayer and the whimsical spasms of choreography by Bill T. Jones add other spirited dimensions to the musical's efforts at freshness. To reinforce the notion that songs play solely in the characters' minds, the actors pull microphones hidden in their costumes whenever the music cranks up. (A few cast members could stand more practice at making this task look seamless.)

Throughout the evening, Kevin Adams's gorgeous lighting bathes the nifty montage-like set by Christine Jones in the radiance of evanescent youth. Some of the best seats in the house, perched directly onstage, bask in the luminescence, too.

As the pivotal character of Moritz, the troubled misfit and friend to Melchior who vents his spleen in rock arias like the pulsing "Don't Do Sadness," Blake Bashoff proves a worthy inheritor of the part that won John Gallagher Jr. a Tony Award. Altomare provides a lovely account of both the opening ballad, "Mama Who Bore Me," and the second-act "Whispering," a plaintive summation of Wendla's sad denouement. And the entire ensemble, led by Epstein, brings the requisite snap to the crackling production number "Totally [Expletive]."

Some of the minor technical issues will probably be resolved as the show's Washington-debut run unfolds. What's not likely to change is the ecstatic jolt that this musical potently administers to the nervous system of the audience's teenagers, whether they happen to be 16, or 60.

Spring Awakening, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Bill T. Jones; costumes, Susan Hilferty; sound, Brian Ronan; vocal arrangements, AnnMarie Milazzo; music director, Jared Stein; music supervisor, Kimberly Grigsby. With Gabrielle Garza, Ben Moss, Matt Shingledecker, Andy Mientus, Krista Pioppi, Anthony Lee Medina. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Aug. 2 at the Kennedy Center. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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