Spring Awakening at The Orpheum Theatre

In Spring Awakening (Hennepin Theatre Trust performing at the Orpheum, tonight — Nov 7 – only) the musical creators have made a magical discovery: that the flowery 19th century text can be combined with 21st century rock music and the effect isn’t at all anachronistic or jarring.  In fact, the two reinforce each other.  The (deservedly) famous “The Bitch Of Living” (“Just kiss some ass, man”) is set down in the middle of formal finishing school Latin class and works brilliantly.  The contemporary music vividly reproduces the characters’ inner life and gives the story a resonance and power it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Thus playwright/lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have used Franz Wedekind‘s 1891 portrait of troubled Austrian teen-agers to forge a genuine modern classic.  Spring Awakening‘s concerns – sexual awakening, the astonishing power of the erotic, homosexuality, the pleasure of pain, vicious societal repression, loneliness – clearly reflect the obsessions of contemporary young people.  The youthfulness of the audience at the Orpheum attests to this.  The show doesn’t enjoy the overwhelming popularity of, say, Wicked, but its place in the culture is permanent and well-deserved.  Kudos to Sater and Sheik for this achievement.

The smart-as-a-whip Melchior (Christopher Wood) is at the center of the story.  He seduces Wendla (Elizabeth Judd), after first beating her with a switch (in a breath-takingly scary scene).  He makes friends with the suicidal Moritz (Coby Getzug).  Others in his circle experiment with homosexuality, deal with parental abuse, struggle to get clear sex information.  The story develops slowly and vividly.

Sater and Sheik pull back somewhat from the edginess of the Wedekind play (Melchior’s rape of Wendla, for example, now becomes a sweet seduction).  They end the show with the hopeful (and slightly corny) “The Song Of Purple Summer”.  But all this is perfectly fine.  Sheik’s excellent music gives the show substance and power in place of Wedekind’s shock effects and the story is better as a result.

This is the second time the show has passed through Minneapolis.  The production is solid, if a tad rough around the edges. “The Bitch Of Living”, which occurs early on, disappointed somewhat, but “Totally ****ed” was a total show-stopper and “Those You’ve Known” was exquisite.  Good performances were turned by Wood and Judd, especially; indeed, everyone is quite good.

So: if you’re reading this today and you’ve got a free night, check this one out.  If not, well, get Spring Awakening on your radar.  It’s the real thing.

Want to read the HowWasTheShow.com review of the play’s first stop in Minneapolis?  Go here.

For more info on John Olive, check out his website.

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