‘Spring Awakening’ keeps 1800s edge
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 4, 2011 7:12PM
◆ Through May 8
◆ Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
◆ (800) 775-2000;
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
“Spring Awakening” was the first play penned by Frank Wedekind, the late 19th century German satirist who worked briefly in advertising and as a circus administrator, dabbled in acting and cabaret, and ultimately created work that laid the foundation for that artistic movement that would become known as German Expressionism.
Wedekind’s plays generated considerable scandal, as well as jail time for the writer. And watching the exceptionally fine national touring company edition of the 2007 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steve Sater that is based on the play — and is now in a brief run at the Ford Center Oriental Theatre — it’s easy to understand why.
In its ferocious attack on the puritanical strictures of bourgeois life, and its piercing indictment of the way youthful sensuality is often denied and suppressed to tragic effect, it deals with issues that continue to plague us: Teen suicide, sexual abuse, botched abortions. More importantly, beyond those “sensational” things, it suggests the way a person’s intellectual and creative spirit can be crushed for good, the way lies can become a way of life, and the way joy can give way to brutality.
I’ve seen this show several times and had mixed feelings about it, although it’s score — alternately ravishing in its lyricism and punkishly brash in its rocking rebelliousness — has undeniable power and beauty. But this time around, from the moment the warm-voiced, luminously beautiful and baby-faced Elizabeth Judd, who plays the teenaged Wendl, climbs up on a chair in a white dress she clearly has outgrown, there is a sense something very real is about to happen. And indeed it does, as she sings of her ripening body and emotions in “Mama Who Bore Me.”
Perhaps it is the simple fact that both Michael Mayer’s original direction, and Bill T. Jones’ jagged, hopped-up choreography, have been meticulously recreated here by two women (Lucy Skilbeck and JoAnn M. Hunter, respectively), for there is now a more subtle vulnerability and ache to the show. Or perhaps it’s just the ideal chemistry among the actors, who are very young, very gifted and have surprisingly little experience. (The cast is non-Equity, but you would never know it. Ticket prices remain at Equity level.)
The story (told with an onstage band and small groups of audience members also seated onstage) spins around a group of teenagers exploding with hormones, desire and shame, and an almost total lack of understanding of sex, love and all the rest. Kept in a state of ignorance (or worse) by their parents, beaten down by teachers and preachers, and getting tentative and confused messages from their peers, they are lost and at risk. Some opt for life; others self-destruct. The consequences are troubling for all.
The brilliant, politically-minded Melchior (handsome Christopher Wood, an impressively sensitive, understated actor), cannot save his more volatile, unformed, confusion-riddled friend, Moritz (Coby Getzug, winningly touching in a fully iconic topiarylike hairdo). Similarly, Wendl cannot comprehend all that is happening to her, or to her friends, including Marta (a vivid turn by Aliya Bowles), with her dark secret of incest, and Ilse (Courtney Markowitz, a lush-voiced, statuesque beauty), with her wild bohemian lifestyle.
The adults (all the women are played by Sarah Kleeman, all the men by George E. Salazar), are still too heavily caricatured and could easily make their mark with more realism in this show that is not for the easily shocked (homosexuality, masturbation, a brief bit of partial nudity are all part of the mix.)
The show’s design by Christine Jones (set), Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Kevin Adams (lighting), is period perfect, with touches of striking modernity appended. And while I look forward to seeing “Spring Awakening” in a smaller space at some point, this production captures its intimate nature with unusual skill.