BWW Reviews: The Playhouse's SPRING AWAKENING is Haunting, Thought Provoking
Audience members attending Spring Awakening at The Playhouse in San Antonio should know that they're in for a more modern, dark musical. If they don't, they will be warned over and over again. The warnings may start when the customer service person at will call warns, "This show is rated R." The disclaimers will continue via the warnings plastered all over the lobby, on the cover and inside the program, and inside the bathrooms. You will be told time and time again that the show involves rape, violence, abuse, suicide, abortion, and teenage sexuality. Immediately before the show, a voice-over informs the audience of these issues once again and adds, "The views of this show are in no way the views of The Playhouse, and we in no way intend to offend. You are a valued patron." As the warnings become a near apology for what we're about to see, I have to ask why? As someone who's familiar with Spring Awakening and understands that the show explores injustices faced by children by showing us exactly what we're too afraid to address about our society, I have to ask why the apology? Why are the views of the show not shared by The Playhouse, and who cares if people are offended? Isn't it a greater offense that some people would chose not to discuss these important issues simply because it's uncomfortable? While Spring Awakening may not be the happy-go-lucky type of show that some audience members may want to see, there's certainly a need and a reason for these darker themes to be explored, no matter how uncomfortable they may make us feel.
Thankfully, once the production actually starts, the apologies end. What The Playhouse has on its hands is a fearless, visceral, and poignant show which will startle and perhaps outrage the audience but also calls them to action.
Based upon the controversial 1891 play of the same name by German playwright Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening is a Tony Award winning rock musical following the troubles of a group of teens in a small German village. Moritz is failing out of school. Martha is constantly beaten and raped by her father. Wendla's mother refuses to educate her about sex, and the rest of the characters struggle to navigate puberty and their budding sexuality. While I'm a fan of the show's pop/punk score by Duncan Sheik (best known for his 1996 debut single "Barely Breathing") and appreciate that it looks towards an over 100 year old text to illuminate the problems of today, I was less impressed by the show itself when I attended the national tour several years ago. This is a puzzling, unorthodox show, and the original production was often jarring and abrupt in its transitions between the naturalistic scenes in 1800s Germany to the modern, edgy musical numbers.
The Playhouse's production is a vast improvement on the original. Director Shannon Ivey's vision and purpose is clear, and the transitions between scenes and songs are fluid. Ivey's take on the material is decidedly dark and gritty, and many choices-particularly the addition of two teenage prostitutes who are consistently beaten, objectified, and abused-are disturbing yet brilliant. Her decision to include local, state, national, and worldwide statistics about rape, abuse, and suicide during the pre-show, intermission, and final moments of the show is equally inspired. Doing so bridges the gap between these characters and our world, something the original production attempted to do but with less successful results.
Ivey's creative team is equally incredible. As the choreographer for a show as light on dance as Spring Awakening, Wendy Ellis doesn't have much to do, though her contribution of a modern dance solo in the number "The Dark I Know Well" is angry and emotive but oddly beautiful. The orchestra, helmed by Musical Director Andrew Hendley, is powerful and blasts Sheik's rock score. The costumes by Jodi Karjala are period pieces with a few occasional punk accessories scattered throughout. Though very simple, the set and lighting by Terry Price are stunning and modern, almost akin to an instillation at an art museum, and the inclusion of live media VJ Kenny Mittlestadt is an exciting one which ensures that the look of each performance is unique.
Ivey and her cast are also able to create fully-formed characters and situations, something that the original production struggled with. As these characters and their stories are intended to illuminate problems in our society, it's easy for them to become flat, two-dimensional archetypes, but they are far from two-dimensional here. Ivey's cast is full of dedicated, gifted performers with strong voices and tight harmonies. They all get moments to shine, but a few are particularly memorable. The young Mariela Flor Olivo is perfect as Wendla, a role originated by Lea Michelle. Olivo creates a character who is innocent but with a driving curiosity, and her voice is exceptionally pure. As Melchior, Travis Trevino is outstanding. Like Olivo, Trevino possesses an incredible voice, and his acting, particularly in the final scene, is terrific and intense. Trevor Chauvin gets the show's most difficult character to work with. Moritz can easily come off as whiney and overly emotional (the guy comes close to a nervous breakdown over having a wet dream), but Chauvin makes Moritz incredibly sympathetic. His gradual descent into depression and despair is staggering to watch and incredibly realistic. Also of note is Anna Gangai as the Adult Females. Her roles are inherently stock characters built specifically to support show's idea that adults who neglect and abuse their children are responsible for any tragedies that may strike. In spite of that, Gangai works wonders with the underwritten and underdeveloped characters, especially with Wendla's torn and guilty mother.
Though Spring Awakening is not a happy, feel-good show, it is a must see. The Playhouse's production of it is arguably one of the best shows of the season and a vast improvement on the material. Many of the issues and problems inherent in the work are solved here. With its fantastic cast and creative team, this Spring Awakening is completely engrossing, but entertainment value aside, this is a show that will alarm audiences, make them think, and hopefully awaken them to the tragic injustices faced by youth all around the world.
Photo: The cast of SPRING AWAKENING
NOTE: Recommended for mature audiences only.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.
SPRING AWAKENING plays The Playhouse - San Antonio at 800 West Ashby Place, San Antonio 78212 now thru June 9th. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for Military and Seniors, $15 for students. For tickets and information, please visit www.theplayhousesa.org.