I came to Spring Awakening a complete innocent, without so much as a quick Google to ascertain theme, genre, plot. I'd heard of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play on which the musical is based, of course, since it pops up in all surveys of European theater, and I knew the production had been a huge hit in New York. The pre-show publicity here focused obsessively on sex, sex, sex, which was fair, since the teenagers in the show are obsessed with sex — masturbation, coitus, wet dreams, homosexual longings, incest, sado-masochism and abortion. Still, watching the opening scenes, I wasn't quite sure what I was in for — comedy? tragedy? arty porn? My confusion was compounded by the creaky sound system at the Buell: A lot of the story is communicated in song — propulsive, electrifying rock songs, soul-melting ballads — and I just couldn't make out the lyrics. But it turns out that Spring Awakening is rich and emotive territory, and all that sex talk not only has meaning, it means almost everything.
As the show opens, Wendla is begging her mother to explain sex and reproduction, but her mother can't bring herself to do it. This evasion, which appears gently comic at the time, turns out to have terrible consequences, as does the rigid, religion-suffused milieu in general. The girls lament their ignorance; the boys stomp and sing their impatience. Handsome, brilliant Melchior, who declares himself a free thinker and an atheist and does understand — at least on paper — how copulation occurs, finds himself drawn to Wendla. Neither can begin to fathom the wild and uncontrollable feelings surging through them. In Wedekind's original, Melchior rapes Wendla; here — and it's a key departure — the act is consensual. Moritz is the insecure eccentric who fails at school and is doomed by the verdict of his unbending father. Ilse fled her father's abuse and found the apparent freedom of an artists' colony, only to realize that this hedonistic life, too, destroys. At first you think you're watching something glisteningly, darkly, daringly sexy, and then you find yourself in Romeo and Juliet territory, with Melchior grieving over Wendla's tombstone, the ghosts of those he loves hovering at his shoulder, and the audience realizing that the adults in this provincial town have destroyed their young as surely as the Capulets and Montagues did theirs.
The theme of teenage derangement and confusion is to some extent universal, but the raging lust and fear of the teenagers in Spring Awakening, the constant undercurrent of violence, the consequences of the smallest deviation from socially sanctioned norms — these are the product of a very specific time and place. It's the authoritarianism of nineteenth-century Germany that gives the kids' physical yearnings an edge so intense that love itself becomes lurid, almost pornographic. And it's the Romantic sensibility that posits a link between sexual freedom and freedom in general — intellectual, political, creative.
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Presented by Denver Center Attractions through December 13, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4000, www.denvercenter.org.
The genius of Spring Awakening is the link it forges between historical and current realities. It does this primarily through Steven Sater's lyrics and Duncan Sheik's extraordinary and entirely contemporary music. On a set that feels simultaneously improvised and elegant, the kids act out their scenes, whip out microphones and belt their songs, fade into the background or walk unconcernedly through, as if at a rehearsal, blurring the line between an old story and a new performance. The lighting is almost a force in itself, invading your eyes with flash and dazzle or suggesting a quiet, star-lit night. And the choreography of the magnificent Bill T. Jones, full of sharply angled elbows and angry downward thrusts, plays a huge role, too. All of the adults are well-played by two actors, Angela Reed and John Wojda, and if the youngsters — Jake Epstein as Melchior, Christy Altomare as Wendla, Taylor Trensch as Moritz, among others — are any indication of the level of musical-theater talent coming up, current Broadway stars would do well to look over their shoulders.
Spring Awakening shatters our sense of what a musical is and sends an exploding shower of possibilities up out of the ruins. Can a musical contain significant ideas and communicate human truths? Shake you up? Upset you? Rile your soul and pound at your heart? This one can.