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Photos courtesy of the Long Beach Playhouse.

I was among some of the first to see the Broadway production of Spring Awakening: The Musical, back when it was in its opening week of previews in the fall of 2006. Before that night, all I knew of Spring Awakening was its source material; the infamous, primal, and long-censored play of the same name that had been written by German playwright Frank Wedekind in 1891.

Going in, it was hard to imagine how, or even why, anyone would adapt Wedekind’s subversive tragedy into a musical. Dealing with repressed adolescent sexuality and the blindly authoritarian philosophies that rule a provincial German town in 1891, the tone of Spring Awakening the play is the opposite of musical. Its reality is a harsh and uncompromising one, without much room for joy or song. I also feared that some of Wedekind’s relentless ambiguity and brutal honesty would be dumbed down with the sort of general, sweeping sentimentality that musicals are so notoriously known for.

My fears were both met and diminished that evening, some to the fault of the material and others, I’ve now learned, to the fault of the Broadway production.

The musical adaptation, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by singer-songwriter Dunkan Sheik, uses its music to express the inner thoughts, feelings, and most successfully, the angst of the town’s young inhabitants, through a parallel narrative to the play’s central one. Each song breaks away from the reality of the plot and transports us to a world where each character can suddenly express the thoughts and feelings society denies them. Conceptually, this idea is brilliant, an opportunity to bring insight to the voices silenced in the Wedekind original.

Unfortunately, or at least, challengingly however, the score to Spring Awakening is often decisively ethereal and poetic. It is also often rather anti-theatrical, making it hard to follow the words being sung, or at least leaving the doors wide open for the director to interpret. The Broadway production stayed in far too sterile and literal territory for the play to ever reach the sort of visceral heights its concept suggested.

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Amazingly, though far less technically advanced and polished than the Broadway production, the current incarnation of Spring Awakening: The Musical that is now on stage at the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theater, solves many of the musical adaptation’s biggest problems with great creativity, confidence and a surprisingly uncompromising and rebellious spirit.

Directed fearlessly by Sean F. Gray, this production of Spring Awakening succeeds most profoundly by giving physical life to the sub textual, internal thoughts of its characters’ songs. During the song “Bitch of a Living”, where before we only heard about the sexual desires of all of the boys, here Mr. Gray creates a female personification of that sexual desire in female form and puts her front and center, giving her life and allowing her to interact with everyone. She returns again and again throughout the production, beckoning and leading our characters towards their repressed desires.

Spring Awakening Press Photo 5Likewise, in a scene halfway through act one, in which one of the boys appears locked in his bathroom masturbating to the picture of a woman, but sub-textually dreaming of the boy he is starting to have feelings for, here that dream-boy physically appears to him, aiding him in his self pleasure.

Mr. Gray also opens the show with a prologue, set in the present and seemingly of his own invention, which establishes the concept of the musical so clearly, it’s amazing that no one has ever thought of it before. It also lays the foundation for an enlightening finale.

Again and again this production surprises and problem solves, rearing its head in the face of bigger productions that were scared to take creative license with the material, or present it with the sort of intimate, overtly sexual imagery this show suggests but is often afraid to embrace.

The cast of Spring Awakening make up for what they lack in acting chops with their powerful voices and brave dedication to the material. For the first time with this show, I’ve seen a cast that is believable and diverse, instead of one where everyone tries to sound like Duncan Sheik and look like they could be modeling for H&M.

Lorenzo Ferrer has the most striking voice of any of the males in this production and adds surprising soul and energy to the play any time he sings.

As the young homosexual lovers Hanschen and Ernst, Michael D.H. Phillips and Tommy Tafoya offer startlingly intimate performances, turning their love scene, which in New York was played for laughs, here into something far more believable and beautiful.

Matthew Jenning’s Melchior, the play’s protagonist, is graceful and intelligent, though his singing was a little pitchy at times. Angela Griswold’s Wendela is a quiet revelation. I found Griswold hard to take my eyes off of any time she was on stage, making Wendla’s fate all the harder to stomach.

Likewise, Nina Ramos as Ilse, the only character here who has managed to break away from the conventions of society and find some kind of freedom for herself, has a powerhouse voice and a deeply compelling presence I have often seen lacking in other portrayals of her character.

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As all of the adult male and female roles, Cort Huckabone and Sonja Taylor offer compelling performances as the short sighted adults that inhabit the world of Spring Awakening, with Taylor delivering some truly heart wrenching moments.

The greatest misstep of this production is also one of the biggest missteps in this musical’s history, and that is its treatment of the character Moritz. Moritz is supposed to be an awkward and conflicted teenager, overcome with confused sexual feelings and intelligent in ways not valued by the society he was born into. On Broadway, as here, he is presented as a misunderstood, gothy-rock-star, with a Robert Smith haircut and a punk rock look to boot. This choice draws unnecessary attention to his physical presence on stage and steals the focus away from the play’s actual protagonist. As this already is one of the shows greatest contrivances (Moritz being the only character that looks like he’s from a different time and place then the rest of the cast) it doesn’t help here that Leonardo Moradi lacks the vocal chops to send his songs through the roof. In the one element of this production that feels fully phoned in, director Sean Gray regrettably decides to direct Moritz towards his stereotype, instead of finding the believable humanity he successfully discovers in all of the play’s other characters. 

The Studio Theater presents many challenges in staging a musical, mainly, those of sound and space. For this production only the sound design suffers. Placing the band in front of the stage without miking many of the cast members sometimes makes it hard to hear what’s being sung. Also, the small orchestra suffers from the use of real guitars. The small band and passionate cast still make the best out of what they have.

Spring Awakening Press Photo 8The intimacy of the theater here is totally in this production’s favor however, adding a much-needed immediacy to the work. Halley Wright’s choreography succeeds not only in filling the space attractively but elevates many of the songs here on both the physical and conceptual plains. It is clear that she worked with the director closely as the transitions throughout are nearly seamless. It is sometimes hard to tell who is leading whom. If only more musicals felt this way.

Spring Awakening: The Musical is not a perfect show. It is uneven, not just in concept but in tone. It takes on source material that it doesn’t feel fully comfortable inhabiting and tries to be too many things at once. The censoring of the central rape scene of the Wedekind original, that here becomes an act of sexual consent, sets the tone for the kind of blatant, generalized sentimentality that plagues this adaptation. When sharing the stage with other scenes of nearly verbatim Wedekind transcription, the falseness of those moments stick out even more than they likely would otherwise. That the themes of this show speak out so loudly to the evils of censorship and the musical still chooses to censor itself says a great deal about the state of the Broadway musical, and perhaps musical-going audiences in general.  

Still, at its core, what this play is about is one of the most important and truthful subjects of the human condition. That we live in a time where, as Sean Grey notes in his directors note, “there are places in the world, even in the United States, where events like those in Spring Awakening still occur” it is essential to keep the awareness of these themes viable and accessible. When it is successful, this is exactly what Spring Awakening: the Musical does and for that, it should be celebrated. Its successes are ultimately more important than its shortcomings. 

Seeing it in our community, in the most unflinching and forward thinking production of the show I’ve yet to see, gives me both great hope for the future of the play itself and more importantly for our city and its growing consciousness towards sexual acceptance. Spring Awakening is about hearing the song that is inside of yourself: one not dictated by time, place, society or circumstance but one that is primal, inherent and true.

This show may not be for everyone, but it is about everyone. Regardless of the imperfections of the source material or this production of it, I have been thinking about it nearly non-stop since I saw it.

You will likely be doing the same.

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