Spring Awakening at The Orpheum Theatre

Spring Awakening - Publicity Photo

Thousands of eager theater fans braved the chill on Tuesday night to catch Minneapolis’s premiere of the Tony Award winning musical, Spring Awakening, at the Orpheum Theatre. The rock musical, which is based on a controversial 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind, has become one of this season’s must see Broadway productions. The play’s themes of sexual repression, homosexuality, and abortion aren’t by any means new ideas, but due to their lightening rod nature they are never far from the national conscience. Due the recent renaissance of ill-conceived plans for how to educate our kids (abstinence education works, right?) perhaps the timing is perfect for a play that forces us to reexamine the uncomfortable conversation about kids and sex.

Today’s Spring Awakening crosses chronological boundaries by keeping some of its Nineteenth Century roots in its costuming, while replacing the classical score with modern rock music by Duncan Sheik. The musical also draws the audience in through its use of Brechtian methods to pierce the fourth wall of the stage – at times ensemble characters were hidden amongst the audience and stood up to sing from their seats in apparent spontaneity. Since so called “Epic Theater” was designed to destroy the separation between the story and the audience members’ personal experience, one can only expect that the motive of Spring Awakening was not only to entertain, but also to make us examine our own sexual pasts and presents, and whatever good or bad connotations that they inspire. In a mark of true Brechtian excellence, some were deeply moved while others were simply offended. (One very dignified lady near me could not stop snorting with disdain).

The characters were almost all played by young fresh-faced actors who look like they just walked in from High School the Musical. (In fact many of them are just barely out of high school). Standouts included the two male leads, Moritz, played by Blake Bashoff and Melchior, played by Kyle Riabko. The two young men were pitch perfect and carried their roles with the effortlessness of professionals far above them in age (Bashoff and Riabko were both part of the original Broadway run). Less perfect was Christy Altomare’s Wendla. Altomare has vocal ability but without enough force behind it, and she also affected a slight sense of vacancy that kept her just a touch removed from the story. Though of serious nature, the play had its comedic aspects too – especially in the lightheartedness of Hanschen’s (Andy Mientus) and Ernst’s (Ben Moss) tender homosexual encounter.

On its surface, “Awakening” is the simple story of a group of youths in their early teens and the different ways in which they grapple with the onset of sexuality. With scenes of graphic sex (some of the most realistic simulated sex I have seen on stage) abortion, and masochism; the play generally isn’t suggested for kids. However, perhaps discouraging the young from seeing this show is simply another form of shielding them from reality, just as the adults of the play try to do to their children (with ugly results). Teaching our kids about sex is something that has never been easy for us to do, whether now, or in the Nineteenth Century Germany of Wedekind’s time.

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