Theater review: Broadway Across America’s ‘Spring Awakening’

Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff in ‘Spring Awakening’

Though it is a period piece, Spring Awakening and the teenagers currently tearing up Broadway — and, this week, Portland’s Keller Auditorium — are anything but irrelevant.

Based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, which was banned for its frank depiction of adolescents discovering sexuality in a repressive German town, the updated musical featuring rock music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater feels contemporary.

Even as the kids strut around the stage in knickers and floor length dresses, the issues of teenage suicide, pregnancy, masturbation and homosexual experimentation remain topical, making the setting and the music work hand in hand to give life and immediacy to the characters.

While contemporary young people might have slightly more access to information about sex, the interactions between authority figures and the students will be familiar to both teens and the parents who were teens once themselves.

Angela Reed and Henry Stram play every adult character in the play in varied perfection. Whether she is Melchior’s sympathetic and open-minded mother or the cruel schoolfrau, Reed wears the same clothes and eventually toes the same party line, while still giving a very distinct portrayal of each character she embodies.

What is most important here, however, is how the individuality of the adults has been stripped away, until they can be told apart only by very tiny differences. It is this conformity that the younger generation struggles against, though they are, for the most part, unaware. In moments reminiscent of the Peanuts adults, whose voices you could never understand and whose faces you could never see, all the adult men and women chant a rote chorus of the status quo.

The brilliant Melchior (Kyle Riabko) sees through this. He uses his intelligence to both inform his close, and much more innocent friend Moritz, played awkwardly and brilliantly by Blake Bashoff (most well known for his role as Karl on Lost) about the mechanics of sex, and impress his teachers, even as he openly defies rules and social norms. Even he, however, is more naive than he knows, if not about sex and academics, about what the adults around him will do to keep his rebellion down.

Indeed, moral ambiguity is central to Spring Awakening. And though the cultural repression around the children is clearly wrong, they all make mistakes. But it is the failure of the supposed wisdom of the status quo that leads the lambs to slaughter.

The girls of ‘Spring’

Yet, even if Act 2 will leave you feeling bereft and uncomfortable there is plenty of laughter and joy to be had in a play that so willingly flirts with teenage fantasy. The hair styles alone will make you chortle, especially in combination with the squirming adolescent feet and bodies that try to dance in their chairs and sit up straight. And occasionally, the vogue style moves, meant to be a physical and gestural representation of the way young people move about, went a little over the top. But in the grand scheme of Broadway musicals this criticism is certainly harsh as the musical numbers were a near-perfect synthesis of teenage personality, artful choreography and edgy, effective, contemporary lyrics.

The same goes for the occasional cringe-inducing exchange between the effete brunette and his sly blond bisexual seducer. But even in that moment, the energy of the irony and comedy eventually came through. Oddly enough, the gay characters may have been the happiest, and the safest from harm.

Spring Awakening is a fusion of times, styles and audiences that is most certainly deserving of its eight Tony Awards. It’s a musical that the most advanced theater-goer and the newcomer can both enjoy, and has just enough prurient excitement to make Rent seem old, which is pretty good for a play written over a hundred years ago.

Spring Awakening, presented by Broadway Across America, runs through this Sunday at the Keller Auditorium. Tickets are $32.75 – 80.50. And for the bold (and frugal) among you, seats on the stage are available for less than $30, but they’ll go fast. (Thanks Byron)

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