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SunTrust Broadway Series' Spring Awakening

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Spring Awakening

SunTrust Broadway Series
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through March 7

During its triumphant two-year run on Broadway, Spring Awakening made a fair sweep of the Tony and Drama Desk Awards in 2007, garnering accolades for best musical, best book, best score and best direction in both competitions.

So it's regrettable—to say the least—that the reasons for these and other critical superlatives remain largely obscured in the professional touring production appearing this week at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Full disclosure demands I note here that, after my editor inadvertently gave me the wrong curtain time for the Tuesday night performance, I took my seat in DPAC some 15 minutes or so after the show had opened. Still, the difficulties I saw during the rest of Spring Awakening made it reasonably clear that the first quarter-hour wouldn't have fundamentally reframed my experience. My further consultation with Steven Sater's script and Duncan Sheik's soundtrack, later on, has reinforced this conclusion.

Begin with the source material. For a show ostensibly celebrating the first arousals of sensuality in the young and their subsequent initiations into sex, German playwright Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 drama of the same name seems an odd—and largely joyless—choice. In a German society Wedekind ridicules for its sanctimony and self-service, those characters most fully exposed to what once was termed "the facts of life" inevitably encounter disgrace first, and then death. In Wedekind's hands, these rites of passage more closely resemble a frequently fatal Rite of Spring.

Given the constant attacks on Roe v. Wade by American social conservatives, it's fully appropriate for a stage play to remind present generations of the horrors inflicted by forced choices and lack of reproductive education in the past.

Still, one wishes for a staging somewhat less melodramatic and less ... well, ridiculous than the one found in Sater's adaptation. In one scene, after working on mysteries without any clues, a hapless, geeky teenaged Moritz finally beseeches his whiz-kid classmate, Melchior, for the facts on sexuality.

Their dialogue plumbs the depths. In a rising, nearly hysterical voice, Taylor Trensch's Moritz asks, "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?" Jake Epstein's Melchoir gravely replies, "All right then. I'll tell you. I got it out of books. But prepare yourself: It made an atheist out of me."

Then there's the question of where these deliberations take place. If Christine Jones' brick and bric-a-brac set suggests some two-story Applebee's more than any German high school classroom in the 1800s, Kevin Adams' unwisely generous deployment of garish yellow, red, green and blue neon tilts the locale even more toward an Amarillo, Texas, dive I found myself in one night last week.

The overall effect suggests a slightly urbanized version of American Idol—a sense that's only reinforced in this production given the shallowness of its characterizations, plus the annoying series of glitzy show-biz devices that Adams, Jones and pop composer Duncan Sheik employ to lend gravitas to Sater's frequently lightweight lyrics. These include: sudden, "dramatic" mid-song stops and unexpected endings; instant, set-wide light changes that reverse the stage at one particular word in the lyrics; old-school mike stand swoons; a key change on orgasm in one song; and an elevated platform, apparently offered in lieu of elevated thought or sentiment.

For if Sater's book portrays but a fraction of its youthful subjects' passions, it manages to convey their incoherence far too completely. Songs like "The Mirror Blue Night" are beautifully sung and staged—until, that is, you perceive how little their lyrics have to do with the events in the scenes before. Or much of anything else, for that matter.

Though Sheik's music is undeniably atmospheric, it doesn't entirely cloak what looks a lot like bad high-school poetry, in a number of the lyrics here. The blurriest images, clunky turns of phrase, incomplete metaphors and unclear references make a number of Sater's purportedly confessional song lines unintentionally opaque. These are only occasionally punctuated by the sharp-eyed assessments in songs like "The Guilty Ones" and "Left Behind." Elsewhere, true desire, in songs like "Touch Me," seems delivered in relatively flat terms in this production.

Sater's schismatic staging has his characters interact with teachers and peers as if in the 1890s—until, that is, they reach for a microphone, the world around them freezes and they belt out modern-day rock, folk, semi-grunge and pseudo-punk numbers that show their "real" personalities and feelings to the audience. Cop Rock, anyone?

This back-and-forth whipsaw not only throws time out the window, an effect the creators no doubt desired. It also tends to closet the characters when they're not singing, and make for further splits between what they say and ultimately do. For all of his previous internal poeticizing in music and in conversation with Moritz, Melchior's "consummation" scene with Wendla remains a sudden, awkward and problematic sexual encounter with a woman who doesn't have what Melchior does: enough information to realize that she's actually having sex.

It's also regrettable that, even in an adaptation written more than 100 years after the original, true female sexual agency remains a bridge too far for Spring Awakening—save, that is, for Wendla's momentary Act One dalliance with either sadomasochism or borderline personality disorder. In its absence, wistful—and above all, inappropriately vague—placeholders populate a number of songs, including "Mama Who Bore Me," and "Whispering."

These problems and more occur before the emotional whiplash rendered between Spring Awakening's last two songs: a strangely boppy graveyard dirge "Those You've Known," which immediately slam-segues into the unjustified happy ending of "The Song of Purple Summer." Though his principal characters have all met imprisonment or grislier fates, Sater's lyrics assure us that all (or, at least, the ones who didn't die) shall know the wonder of the purple summer—whatever that may, in fact, happen to be.

Such are the final, dubious lessons of a work whose addiction to glitz, sloppy language, schismatic staging and lack of female agency effectively prevents any true celebration of young sexuality from ever taking place, before unceremoniously dumping us out at the end. Though Spring Awakening claims to anticipate a liberation from repressive sexual mores, what it ultimately depicts is another thing entirely: a technically hyped-up version of the same old story.

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