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Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

by John Rodat on February 18, 2010

Spring Awakening
Proctors, through Feb. 21

Ready for Love: Spring Awakening.

OK, so, maybe it wasn’t exactly a burning question. But for certain types of pop-music fans in the audience, Spring Awakening, the Tony Award-winning musical, will certainly call to mind literate emo bands like Gibbard’s outfit or the Decembrists; and the play’s plot—focused on the institutional repression of authentic identity by parents, priests and pedants—will seem a direct descendant of Roger Waters’ angsty opus. Surprisingly, given the high mope factor in both those apparent influences, Spring Awakening is an enormously—of all things—fun musical.

Fun, despite its rather dark subject matter. Though this is essentially an ensemble cast, the main dramatic thrust concerns the trials of Melchior (Jake Epstein), a 19th-century German schoolboy. Melchior is a promising young scholar dabbling with freethinking, atheism and a hedonistic sensuality. In other words, he is a teenage boy. Of the boys in his all-male school, Melchior is the most assured and confident in his, mostly intellectual, forays into liberation (with the possible exception of the gay student Hanschen, who is given an urbane and somewhat predatory air by Andy Mientus). But when he crosses the line from lusty thought to action with his childhood friend Wendla, they discover quickly the cutting edge of passion.

As Melchior and Wendla’s relationship plays out to disastrous consequences, we see, too, the varying effects of unrestraint on the circle of their acquaintances: Ilse (the beautifully voiced Steffi D) has dropped out and become a kind of groupie/plaything for what sounds like a Vienna Secession commune; Martha (Sarah Hunt) is victimized in an appalling way by her parents; and Melchior’s floundering and fuddled classmate Moritz (the delighfully, convincingly awkward Taylor Trensch) gives way fully to adolescent depression. Unwanted pregnancies, dangerous abortions, S&M, domestic abuse, incest, suicide—a far cry from dog bites and bee stings, eh, Frau Von Trapp?

But, as evidenced opening night by the crowd’s enthusiatic laughter, the musical is given a great deal of levity by its musical numbers. This works in two ways: First, the music by Duncan Sheik provides really spot-on emulation of catchy post-grunge pop; with tolerably snot-nosed, punky lyrics by Steven Sater, the upbeat numbers, especially, are memorable singalong sneers. “The Bitch of Living,” for example, and “Totally Fucked” are just shocking enough in the grandeur of Proctors (and, yeah, I’d forgotten, wow!) to feel fist-in-the-air rebellious. Secondly, the ballads, while for me less engaging, focused less on furthering or punching home plot as they did on maintaining a general wash of emotionality.

This sounds like faint praise, but it worked well to lighten the load of the dramatic events. The point, it seems, of Spring Awakening is not so much what happens, but what is felt about what happens—and largely, despite the specifics, you are meant to feel good.

With its blue language, brief nudity and simulated sex, Spring Awakening is a remarkably risque staging for this area; but its good heart, tasteful and clever staging (seating a modest number of audience members in bleachers stage right and left was a nice touch; scattering backup singers in modern dress throughout those bleachers was a very deft way of connecting through the fourth wall and through time), and universally high quality of singing talent easily won over, and held, the crowd.