REVIEW: SPRING AWAKENING Rocks the Body and Stirs the Soul at OCPAC
COSTA MESA, CA—It's tough to be a teenager these days. And apparently, things weren't so easy back in late 19th Century Germany either. In what is possibly one of the most soul-stirring, beautifully-scored, creatively innovative musicals to have come out of Broadway in the past few years, SPRING AWAKENING (playing through November 29 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center) is an accessible period piece with the heart of a modern day teen drama (minus the After-School Special treatment). Sandwiched in between scenes of time-defiant angst is a beautiful (and at times, hard-rocking) musical score that is as equally rebellious as it is truthful. There's plenty to like here: from the bare but effective set, to the emotionally-charged performances of its young but impressive cast.
Based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind—that was itself banned by German authorities in its time—SPRING AWAKENING is a series of angst-riddled vignettes depicting the hypersensitive lives of impressionable teens. In the periphery are adult figures (all of whom are played by the same two actors) that provide them with a constant barrage of confusion, ridicule, condemnation, and censorship. To put the 8-time Tony® Award-winning Best Musical's ideology in simpler, more currrent terms: Adults... suck.
Here, grown-ups are manipulative, oppressive, and oblivious to the sensitivities of youth. At the center of the show's action is a trio of compelling teen characters that desire nothing more than to transcend their current troubles: There's authority-challenging intellectual Melchior (played by Jake Epstein), who longs to escape the confines of society's insistence on disavowing critical thought and radical self-expression. Though Melchior is seen as a brilliant scholar, it seems his utter genius sparks questionable personal beliefs that are unpopular, especially with those older than him. Melchior's best friend is Moritz (Taylor Trensch), a manic, overly-sensitive kid with a penchant for wet dreams and sleeping through classes. He seems to mean well, but somehow fate keeps handing him the shorter end of the stick. Across the way (since boys and girls in this society are not allowed to co-educate), Wendla (Christy Altomare) is trying desperately to feel grown up by learning about the birds and the bees. Her Mom doesn't want to divulge anything. So, instead, she gets her (misguided) friends to fill her in on it.
Though the plot seems a bit hastened in spots and a few characters feel under-developed, the musical still packs a wallop, thanks to the heightened emotional states of the characters and the brilliantly spare staging of Tony winner Michael Mayer. Exposition, in the case of a play like SPRING AWAKENING, will seem intrusive and unnecessary. It is not difficult to connect or feel empathy towards these kids, especially in songs like "The Dark I Know Well"... where Martha (Sarah Hunt) and Ilse (Steffi D.) sing briefly—but powerfully—about their shocking plights with an extremely taboo subject (shocking both today and back in 1891); or when Melchior leads a rousing "Totally F---ed" as he faces severe punishment from school authorities over his supposed involvement in a tragic event. The authors of this musical had obvious aspirations to correlate the issues of youth to be quite universal—so much so that even the separation of an entire century cannot hide the emotional similarities between these German teens in 1891 and the snarky iPod generation of today.
Interweaving modern rock concert performances in between its 19th Century text (complete with wireless microphones being magically pulled from vest pockets) is a masterstroke of theatrical inventiveness. The songs don't at all feel as if they interrupt the story; in fact, they actually punctuate it. As stand-alone songs, Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater have crafted such impressive cocktails of eloquent poetry and infectious pop-rock hooks. As part of the musical as a whole, the score—to steal lyrics from one of the show's songs—is nothing less than "harmony and wisdom." When the full cast sing together, they produce some really beautiful, melodic harmonies that are surprisingly mature-sounding.
Much like true rock stars (with better vocals), the entire cast is phenomenal. Both Jake Epstein and Taylor Trensch are relatively new to the tour; but here, they both display an infectious rapport common in life-long friends. Trensch is a revelation: a brilliant comic, an excellent dramatic actor, and an impressive singer with great stage presence. Perfectly cast as the tragic Moritz, he certainly has some big shoes to fill: John Gallagher, Jr. who originated the role on Broadway, won a Tony® Award for this very role. Christy Altomare is beautiful and adequately subtle as Wendla. Her solo work in the opener "Mama Who Bore Me" and later in "Whispering" are quite lovely. Andy Mientus is a hilarious scene-stealer as Hanschen (there's no escaping the laughter once he takes care of business in "My Junk" and seduces young Ernst—played by Ben Fankhauser—in the second act). An added wonderful treat is to hear each ensemble member doing amazing work in their short solos. As the sole adults in the cast, the hard-working Angela Reed and John Wojda each provide perfect support. And finally, Epstein as Melchior turns in a superb actor's performance. By the time he sings "Left Behind" in tribute to Moritz, the audience is tearful.
Some may say that this is "a musical only for young people," which is the exact type of dismissive phrase that the play is trying to warn against. Just because young people may not have the full capacity to make well-thought-out decisions, does not mean their ideas should be quickly and easily taken for granted. On the contrary, SPRING AWAKENING suggests—as it is sung in the show's final song—to "listen to what's in the heart of a child." The musical is just a brief tableau of what it means to be a teen in an adult-run world. While some material may have been borderline objectionable for some adults (this is Orange County, after all), the rousing cheers at the show's conclusion is proof that this was no mere play, but rather, a performance. And a brilliant one at that. There's a moment you know... you've been rocked.
Performances of SPRING AWAKENING continue at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Sunday, November 29.
Photos by Paul Kolnik:
Top - The cast of the 1st National Tour of SPRING AWAKENING.
Center - Christy Altomare & Jake Epstein. Bottom - Taylor Trensch.
Tickets to see SPRING AWAKENING are $20 - $70 and are available at OCPAC.org, at the Center's Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa or by calling 714.556.2787. For inquiries about group ticket discounts for 15 or more, call the Group Services office at 714.755.0236. The TTY number is 714.556.2746. The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, November 28 will be sign-language interpreted. Please note that on-stage seats are sold out.
OCPAC is offering discounted student rush tickets for just $20. Student rush tickets are available one hour before each performance. A valid student ID is required at the time of purchase, with a limit of two tickets per person, which must be paid for in cash. Students are advised to call the Orange County Performing Arts Center's information line at 714.556.2787 to confirm availability.
SPECIAL $10, $20 AND $30 TICKETS AVAILABLE FOR THANKSGIVING DAY PERFORMANCE IN PARTNERSHIP WITH ORANGE COUNTY FOOD BANK:
The Center is offering a limited number of specially-priced tickets to the November 26 Thanksgiving Day performance.These tickets are $10, $20 and $30, and may be purchased now at OCPAC.org, at the Center’s Box Office or by calling 714.556.2787. When purchasing tickets, patrons need to use the promo code THANKS. Patrons who take advantage of this special opportunity should bring non-perishable food items to the performance where Orange County Food Bank will be accepting donations on behalf of the Center and Spring Awakening.
Cox Communications is the Media Partner of the Center's 2009-2010 Broadway Series.
For more information please visit springawakening.com.