Sometimes the show is not necessarily always happening on stage. Such was the case at Broadway Series South’s Saturday-matinee performance of the NETworks Presentations, LLC touring production of the Tony Award®-winning musical Spring Awakening, based on the 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. Steven Sater provided the book and lyrics for this updated musical version, and acclaimed singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik orchestrated the music.
In 2007, Spring Awakening won eight Tony Awards, including the Tonys for Best Musical, Best Direction (Michael Mayer), Best Score (Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik), and Best Featured Actor (John Gallagher, Jr. as Moritz).
Although the original production swept people away and drew huge crowds, this touring production failed to deliver on the whole. The performers all had lovely voices, but their acting chops left a lot to be desired.
To say the story is problematic is a bit of an understatement. Act I revolves solely around the budding sexuality of a group of German teenagers, circa 1891. They strive to understand their sexuality, to experience it, to live out the fantasies racing through their heads. Act II is all about what happens once shared sexuality has been achieved. And let’s just say it’s not a happy tale.
Ultimately, Act I progresses slowly. Nothing really happens until Wendla (Elizabeth Judd) and Melchior (Christopher Wood) finally come together. The original telling of this encounter teeters more into the world of rape than this one does. (While Wendla is resistant and anxious at first, she finally gives in to Melchior’s advances in Spring Awakening.) And this is where the second show really began — in the audience.
Needless to say, Spring Awakening is graphic and unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of sex — whether with someone else, or yourself — and that made a lot of our homegrown audience uncomfortable. During the song “My Junk,” Hanschen (Devon Stone) sits center stage and masturbates to a photograph.
At the end of Act I, when Wendla and Melchior have their tryst, we see (heaven forbid!) a bare breast, and a naked backside. It was almost insulting listening to the audience titter and whisper to themselves; they were unable to see past the nudity as it serves the script and the story overall. This is a problem with American audiences in general, but particularly in the South, where the very message of this story is ignored: educate children responsibly about puberty and sex, or they’ll find out on their own with little-to-no guidance. And in the latter instance, the consequences can be grave — as they are for young Wendla.
But that aside, this show did have some major successes. “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)” was a dance-in-your-seat number, complete with the Girls (Aliya Bowles, Rachel Geisler, Courtney Markowitz, Emily Mest, and Elizabeth Judd) gripping hand mics, stamping their feet, and whipping their hair. “The Dark I Know Well” was a moving tale of children abused, sung by Martha (Aliya Bowles) and Ilse (Courtney Markowitz). It is Markowitz who is the standout performer — and it’s a real shame, as Ilse’s storyline is brief. But when Markowitz is on stage, she is captivating. “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” sung by Moritz (Coby Getzug) and Ilse, was a beautiful solo-to-duet, mixing Moritz’s rock with Ilse’s ballad.
“Totally F**ked” was a blasting, energetic song that rocked the walls of Christine Jones’ beautiful set: a huge brick wall that runs the width of the stage. Decorated with portraits and ladders and lights, this wall is the perfect backdrop for this gritty story. Susan Hilferty’s costuming is also spot-on, and Kevin Adams’ lighting design is spectacular.
The band, conducted by Kasey Graham (who also played the keyboard), and associate conducted by Justin Fischer, included of six other instrumentalists: bass (Michael Preen), drums (Jeffrey Roberts), violin (Christopher Marchant), viola (Steven Cuevas), cello (Justin Huertas), and guitar (Austin Moorhead). They worked together perfectly and served the music very well. If only the on-stage talent stood up to the scenic and musical accomplishments.
A brief glint of “non-normative” love, the budding desire for a member of your own sex, is quickly and foolishly handled. Hanschen (Devon Stone) seduces Ernst (Daniel Plimpton) in a scene that was so off-handedly offensive that the beautiful song they sang together (“The Word of Your Body (Reprise)”) was lost. The pair played the attraction for laughs — bug-eyed Ernst even goes so far as to throw his legs over Hanschen’s lap in a moment that could have actually been moving had it not been so totally and completely fake.
Coby Getzug is charged with a big task: to play the role that won John Gallagher, Jr. a Tony, and to make it his own. Unfortunately, he fails. His lines are screamed and screeched out, and his performance was so broad and clunky that it was virtually impossible to connect to him, let alone care for him, which is a real disservice to the story, as Moritz’s storyline is truly heartbreaking.
Elizabeth Judd’s Wendla (originally played on Broadway by “Glee’s” Lea Michele) was fine. She has a beautiful voice; but like Getzug, there was something that made her unable to connect to. In fact, most of the lead performers suffered this malady.
Christopher Wood’s Melchior was more successful than some in creating a character we could care about, but his performance in the final moments of the show was not grounded and came across as false. Granted, the end is Greek in its size and circumstance, but it still must live in a place of truth in order to be successful.
And maybe that’s where this entire production falls short. Just being in what was the biggest rock musical of the decade, that amazed the critics and became a phenomenon, is not enough. If you rely on the hype alone, your production will fall flat on its face. This ensemble was coasting through, hoping the music and the words would be enough, but it wasn’t. The grounded truth was missing, the moments, the beauty of connection. Without these things, you’re not doing a service to the text, and you’re not fulfilling your obligation as an artist. People paid good money to come see you; and if you’re not willing to give it your all, then just go home.
At the close, the audience stood — as we polite Southerners are apt to do — but I don’t think this show deserved it. I’d be more interested in seeing one of our local companies produce Spring Awakening. We have the directorial and acting talent, we have the musicians, and we have the designers to pull off a successful production. I’m willing to take a seat in the house for that, but perhaps not again for this tour.
SECOND OPINION: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/03/multiple-tony-award®-winner-spring-awakening-comes-to-raleigh-on-march-11th-and-12th/.
The Musical: http://www.springawakening.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&id=4697 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/show.php?id=448809 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1417099/ (Internet Movie Database).
NETworks Presentations, LLC: http://www.networksontour.com/ (official website).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.