By Jenn McKee
It’s funny. You come to a musical like “Spring Awakening” – now making a tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre – expecting to feel far removed from the sexual repression suffered by the show’s characters, who are living in 19th century Germany.
But then you hear gasps and uncomfortable rumblings in the audience in response to on-stage nudity; simulated sex and (admittedly vigorous) masturbation; sadism; and two young men passionately making out.
The reaction reminds you that although most of us learn more facts about sex at an earlier age than “Awakening”‘s adolescent characters do, knowledge doesn’t necessarily breed comfort.
In fairness, of course, part of the audience’s shock stems from the fact that we’re still largely unaccustomed to seeing graphic sexuality depicted in musicals. The distinctly American art form was, for decades, largely antiseptic in its approach to “adult” themes – which is one of the reasons “Awakening” was so bracing when it premiered in New York in 2006. (Another reason is Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s often hard-rocking, irreverently raunchy score, so fitting for the show’s frustrated, angsty teens.)
The show focuses on a group of young men and women who desperately long to understand the all-consuming desires and urges they’re feeling, only to be spurned by their parents as well authority figures. With no one else to turn to but each other, the adolescents blindly explore their sexuality.
“Awakening” producer and Plymouth native Tom Hulce has confessed in interviews that he wanted the show to draw and electrify young audiences in the same way that Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” did, and this intention shows.
The show undercuts its teen-oriented earnestness by self-consciously drawing attention to its own theatricality; it uses plain, contemporary language to tell its story; and it collapses our present era with the time of the story’s origin – 1891, when Frank Wedekind wrote the controversial play upon which the musical is based – by way of set, staging, costuming and lighting choices.
Christine Jones’ scenic design consists of a tall brick backdrop that features the cultural trappings of a 19th century home – pastoral artwork, old portraits of stuffy-looking people, and gilt-framed mirrors – surrounded by many small, colored lights, as well as neon rings and lines that, during certain numbers, suddenly turn the theater into a nightclub or a rock concert (courtesy of Kevin Adams’ lighting design).
And while the show’s group of schoolboys wear buttoned-up uniforms (costumes by Susan Hilferty), some of them also sport dramatically exaggerated hairstyles, thus making them seem punky rather than era-appropriate; and they all pull wireless microphones from their costumes, so you associate them with the likes of Kurt Cobain rather than Goethe’s young Werther.
There were a couple of opening night bumps on Tuesday evening. On-stage microphone distribution went awry at the start of “My Junk,” putting me in mind of a clunky baton exchange in a track relay; and the result of this slip was a moment when Wendla’s (Christy Altomare) singing went unheard.
More generally, “Awakening”‘s touring production lacks a little bit of the spunky urgency of the original Broadway production – perhaps a result of the show being an established hit that no longer has to compete in New York’s theater food chain.
Yet the production is still energizing, and the music marvelous to hear. “Touch Me,” for instance, movingly conveys the ensemble’s yearning for physical love and affection. And while the number (“Bitch of Living”) that’s usually my favorite fell a little short, the touring cast nailed “Totally Fucked” – easily the evening’s strongest number.
The young actors are all polished, but the production’s most impressive performance comes from Jake Epstein, as Melchior. The beating heart of the show, Melchior is the smart, thoughtful student who tries to help his academically-challenged, frustrated friend Moritz (Taylor Trensch) get by, while also reaching out to Wendla, who’s struggling with her own confused feelings.
Epstein provides a sound, strong base for the show, making Melchior flawed but wholly sympathetic, too.
So if you go to the show, just prepare yourself for a night of driving music, tragedy and sex. And really, what else would you expect of a musical about teenagers?
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through May 9. $24-$79. 313-872-1000 http://www.broadwayindetroit.com.