Reviewed by Patrick Hao
On face value, setting alternative rock tunes in a conservative village in 19th century Germany seems like a crazy notion. But Spring Awakening, the Tony Award-winning musical by Duncan Sheik (with lyrics and book by Steven Slater), perfectly blends the two. By equating 21st century teen angst to that of 19th century children, the musical, adapted from an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, illuminates just how much nothing has changed when it comes to sexual awakening, rebellion and embracing individuality.
Binghamton University’s adaptation, directed by Tommy Iafrate, the new head of BU’s Musical Theater Program, goes far to show how relevant these issues still are. By using minimalist sets – with one background and furniture moving in and out – it is left up to the audience to complete everything else.
The play follows a collective of students separated by gender. Each is experiencing his or her own version of a sexual awakening, just like any teen would at that age. However, due to parental conservatism and sexual ignorance, the teens’ sexuality is suppressed, and, like a shaken Coca-Cola bottle, the cap is about to burst.
The music in this play is not used for plot progression but rather as a form of soliloquy to express the bursting energy of passion that has been suppressed. The production distinguishes the difference by having the actors suddenly whip out microphones, exaggerating the anachronisms and separating the reality of the stage from the inner turmoil of the teens.
But, like many an opening night, last Friday’s show (Nov. 13) faced some technical difficulties with problem-plagued microphones muddling the lyricism of the songs. The actors and actresses did their best to work through the mishaps, however, and, with amazing support from lighting by John E. Vestal and choreography by JoEllen Kuhlman, the technical difficulties did not matter.
More importantly, they showed how great the ensemble of the musical was. Together, the cast produced beautiful harmonies and chemistry. When the cast was together singing “The Bitch of Living“or “Totally F—-d” as if they were in the middle of a punk rock concert, the show came alive with boundless energy.
The cast led by Colin Roth as Melchoir and Katie Leenig as Wendla exudes the youthful rebellion and curiosity that the show calls for. However, it is Aaron Penzel’s sweaty neuroticism as Moritz, the downtrodden student being suppressed by burgeoning sexuality and educational bureaucracy, that is the real highlight. Although not the best singer on stage, it is Penzel’s emotional rawness and imperfection that served as the soul of the play.
Perhaps, Spring Awakening is the best musical for a college campus at this time. Suicide, rape and depression are issues throughout, and the warning of potential triggers at the beginning of the show is apt for a show like this. But, although tragedy was intended, this production never fully hit the mark in achieving cathartic pathos.
That was how the sound troubles affected the show. Connection has to be made through the visual and auditory senses but with the audio coming in and out, the ultimate pathos of an important character’s death felt more hollow than it should have.
While burgeoning sexuality was portrayed accurately, the certain ambiguity of consent in the ultimate act of sex felt troubling, especially with the current rape controversies at college campuses. This is especially troubling when thinking about the original German play in which the scene plays as a depiction of rape. The musical never further deals with the ramification of that ambiguity but rather on the results of the act itself.
Spring Awakening is daunting musical to adapt. There are nuances between the issues, between the music and between the expected pleasures from a musical that has to hit just right in order for it to fully succeed. Binghamton University’s production misses on some of those nuances, but, when it hits the mark, it is a beautiful piece of musical theater.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 20-21) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 22) in the Watters Theater of the BU Fine Arts Building. Tickets are $18. Call 777-ARTS or visit www.theatrebinghamton.edu.