Spring Awakening | Fabulous Fox Theater




Photos by Paul Kolnik


 This isn’t a musical for the faint of heart and it’s no Rogers & Hammerstein.

Music by Duncan Sheik, Book/Lyrics by Stephen Slater
February 10-22, 2009

The notoriously sexually-explicit rock musical Spring Awakening has built quite a buzz since first opening on Broadway in 2006 and promptly sweeping the 2007 Tony Awards, winning eight out of its eleven nominations, including Best Musical, Best Director, Best Book and Best Orchestrations.

Always a fan of musicals and especially those known to "push the envelope" like RENT and Ave. Q, I had been highly anticipating Spring Awakening‘s St. Louis debut on its first national tour. I really wanted it to live up to my expectations, and at certain moments it did, but overall it fell a bit short. That isn’t to say it wasn’t entertaining – it most certainly was – just not all that memorable.


Set in repressive and provincial late 19th century Germany, Spring Awakening tells the story of teenage self-discovery and budding sexuality, mostly through the eyes of three teens: Wendla Bergman (Christy Altomare), a naïve and sheltered girl who knows that babies don’t come from "the stork" but isn’t really sure where they do come from; Melchior Gabor (Kyle Riabko), the handsome and smart boy she loves who is unafraid to question authority and explore the unknown world of human sexuality; and Melchior’s best friend Moritz Stiefel (Blake Bashoff), a confused and tortured young man who desires to know the truth but is ultimately unable to face it.

Through their own self-discoveries, and those of their classmates and friends, the kids touch on the full range of "taboo" topics including teenage sex and pregnancy, masturbation, homosexuality, incest, abuse, abortion and suicide. This isn’t a musical for the faint of heart and it’s no Rogers & Hammerstein. There is brief nudity and it is billed as a musical for "mature audiences" of at least age 15. You don’t want to see this one with your mom.

The nervous and constantly flustered Moritz is plagued nightly by "sticky dreams" – the nocturnal emissions he has never had explained to him and wouldn’t dare to ask his parents or teachers about. Confiding in his best friend Melchior, he asks, "Why, why am I haunted by the legs of a woman? By the deepening conviction some dark part of my destiny may lie there between them?" No doubt a question for the ages.

Melchi kindly writes him a detailed description of it all, complete with drawings, sending Moritz even further into a tailspin. Says Melchior, "It’s as if the entire world were mesmerized by penis and vagina." Moritz replies, "Well I am!"

The kids journey through their emerging sexuality with only each other to rely on and no help or guidance from the adults in their lives, their teachers and parents. The same man and woman (Angela Reed and Henry Stram) play all of the various adult characters in the show – making even more of a statement that they are simply "authority figures" and don’t really differentiate from each other. You can almost hear Pink Floyd singing "We don’t need no education."

Pop/rock singer and songwriter Duncan Sheik wrote the music for Spring Awakening, and it has a very modern pop/rock feel, in direct juxtaposition to the Victorian setting. In fact, when the schoolboys break into song, they reach into their jacket pockets and suavely pull out microphones (as if they were the Backstreet Boys), and they are instantly transported out of the story and into a more modern world.

"I think we all realized the play should stay in nineteenth century Germany, but the music should be contemporary, in an intentional, radical split from what was happening in the scenes," says Sheik.

The lyrics, written by Stephen Slater, also reflect both the language and tone of modern teens, such as the anthems "Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked" or the pining love song "My Junk is You."

The songs are good – haunting at times, in your face at others – but are not necessarily tunes you leave humming in your head. The exception might be the opening number "Mama Who Bore Me," sung by Wendla and her girlfriends, which is probably the most memorable song. The final number, "Purple Summer," while pretty, is hardly a big finish and leaves the ending a bit flat.

Spring Awakening is based on a controversial play written in 1891 by renowned German social commentator, playwright, songwriter and actor Frank Wedekind. It was instantly deemed "pornographic" and banned from the stage. Yet the content hardly seems all that "shocking" by today’s standards (how shocking is an exposed breast in 2009 really?) and some of it even seems gratuitous. The most compelling moments have really nothing to do with sexuality – probably the most compelling being a scene in which Wendla asks Melchior to beat her with a switch just so she can "feel anything" and he obliges; or the scene where Moritz reaches his deepest darkest level of despair with the world.

The show attempts to make a statement about the negative effects of growing up in a repressive society with teens who are unable to learn about or explore their sexuality. This was probably a relevant and highly controversial topic in 1891, but I think it’s safe to say that today’s teens are hardly repressed in those ways (unless their parents are leaders of the Christian right or they happen to live in that town from Footloose). By 15, most kids can probably teach their parents a few things about human sexuality from all the exposure they get from the media alone.

This show has long been touted as the "next RENT," and endlessly compared, but I don’t believe it really gets anywhere close. Spring Awakening seems to be lacking a bit in the story and character development. I never really feel very strongly for these characters and I am not brought to tears when some of them meet their untimely demise. I don’t leave wanting to know them better. RENT connects with people more emotionally in a lasting way. Its messages are also stronger and more timeless – those of living life to its fullest and the value of friendship and love. The message I left this show with was mostly that being a teenager in nineteenth century Germany was not a whole lot of fun.

Regardless, Spring Awakening is still an interesting and entertaining night at the theater. The entire ensemble cast is superb including stars Bashoff and Riabko, reprising their Broadway roles, newcomer Christy Altomare as the innocent Wendla and Steffi D as the runaway Ilse. Just leave the kids (and maybe grandma) at home. | Amy Burger

Spring Awakening runs through February 22 at the Fox. For mature audiences only. Contains graphic sexual situations and dialogue as well as adult language, brief nudity and violence.

Curtain times are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 15 at 2 & 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, February 22 at 2 p.m.  There is also a weekday matinee on Thursday, February 19 at 1 p.m.  

Tickets on sale the Fox Theatre box office and all MetroTix locations.  To charge by phone, call MetroTix at 314/534-1111 or order online at www.metrotix.com.  

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