Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by David Hudgins. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, February 2. Continues until February 24
On opening night, Spring Awakening, the musical, blossomed in Act 2.
The Broadway version of Frank Wedekind’s groundbreaking 1891 play about teen sexuality won eight Tony Awards in 2006, including one for best musical, and, in some ways, the material is gorgeous.
The main plot line concerns the bright, rebellious Melchior and the innocent, curious Wendla. Their shared sexual awakening takes place in a culture bent on the denial of sexuality, and the consequences of that denial are disastrous for both.
The central convention is that the external world of the musical unfolds in the late 19th century, but when the characters sing and enter their internal worlds, they grab hand mikes and rock out. It’s a great idea, and the alt-rock songs are often affecting.
But Broadway sensibilities can mess with a serious story. In the tradition of outsize performances, cast members in this student mounting play many of their scenes as if they were in a 2,000-seat house. For instance, Dallas Sauer, who takes the role of Moritz, Melchior’s academically challenged best friend, has a supple voice that’s well suited to rock, and as an actor he seems to mean everything he says. But he means it on such a scale that they’re probably getting the message in Bellingham. Sauer is not alone in this, nor is it his fault; director David Hudgins is ultimately responsible for the broad tone.
To be fair, the relative superficiality of this mounting’s first act also seems to be a byproduct of the style set by Steven Sater’s adaptation of Wedekind’s play and by the original Broadway interpretation. In both, the adult characters are consistently made to look like idiotic or cruel cartoons. This approach comments on—and virtually dismisses—the 19th-century reality of the original story, so it’s hard to take the young folks’ sense of entrapment seriously.
That said, the performers in this mounting are admirably committed to the material throughout; in Act 2, when the tragedies start to pile up, they’ve got more consistently substantial material to sink their teeth into, and their commitment pays off.
I particularly appreciated the work of Stephanie Izsak, who plays Ilse, a slightly older teenager who has become a sexual toy in a nearby artists’ colony. There’s stillness and frightening depth in her performance, especially as she sings the haunting “Blue Wind”. Lauren Jackson’s Wendla ripens as the going gets tough; her pitch is always spot-on, and her rendition of “Whispering”, late in the show, is touching. Although greater specificity and less generalized intensity would make his characterization stronger, Riun Garner delivers an intellectually alert, emotionally honest Melchior.
Alex Strong sweetly captures the innocence of the gay Ernst, and, playing a collection of other boys, William Ford Hopkins and Maxamillian Wallace distinguish themselves through strong vocal performances.
I found it hard to enter Act 1. But Act 2 seduced and moved me.