Review: 'Spring Awakening' awake yet groggy
Hormones are erupting all over the place at Theatre Horizon's "Spring Awakening" in Norristown – I nearly slipped and fell on the way out. So be careful if you go. The Tony-award winning musical, essentially about raging teenage hormones, is a rough-hewn, intense and racy exploration of newfound sexuality in 19th-century Germany, but that's just one side of it.
The other side -- the one that Theatre Horizon's co-founder Matthew Decker gets right in his staging of the sometimes flawed production -- is the bittersweet one, those moments when "Spring Awakening" is at its most poignant and you feel like the only person in the theater.
You walk away with the show's heady mix of heartache and hope, perfectly expressed by the cast and heightened by the production's intimate staging in Horizon's new and spiffy theater. Intimate -- that's how audiences first experienced "Spring Awakening" at the cozy Atlantic Theatre Company in downtown Manhattan, before it moved to Broadway. In the ensuing productions, I'd forgotten how much that close-to-the-stage element ramps up this tale of a highly repressed era, when the teenagers feel so right about their desires and suffer so much pain for those feelings.
They grope themselves as they try to understand how their bodies are tricking them. At the same time, they strive to do well in school, please their parents and live up to the world's expectations – that sounds frightfully like today. As a matter of fact, the alternative-rock music really is for today; even as these characters play out their 19th-century story, they whip out rock-concert mikes and sing their minds with modern candor. Duncan Sheik's music may be dressed in punk clothing, but it also sports show-tune underwear. Steven Saters' book and lyrics are edgy and unrestrained.
This musical comes directly from the scandalous 1891 play of the same name by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, considered obscene and not produced for 15 years after it was written. The musical, like the play, tackles many subjects parents still would rather shy away from when talking to teenagers: lovemaking, sex abuse and violence, masturbation, gay awakenings, suicide and more.
I've always felt uncomfortable during some of "Spring Awakening" – partly because of the age 20-ish casts involved in this stuff and partly because by virtue of age and life's timeline, I am now a parent – not the sort, I hope, that "Spring Awakening's" characters try so hard to understand, but who knows? Still, I'm fully in the grip of the show's theatricality: On the simple set it calls for (done here by Maura Roche), "Spring Awakening" is both raw and beautiful to watch, and its power is undeniable.
Horizon's "Spring Awakening" could use more of that power. On opening night Thursday, the cast members seemed hesitant when they joined together in the first-act songs, and Jenn Rose's choreography didn't always achieve its bowling-over effect; the men, in an early song called "The Bitch of Living," looked as though they were still figuring out how their moves synched with the lyrics they were singing.
The lead male character, whose progressive thoughts make him an attractive radical among the girls and a role model for the boys, is played by the dashing Ben Michael, whose sweet vulnerability matches that of his love interest, the magnetic Grace Tarves. She delivers both her spoken and singing part with precision and striking clarity. Michael, for all his acting skill and his strong baritone voice, wavered ever-so-slightly from key on opening night, just enough to make me wince. Had he not been frequently singing a split-second beat ahead of the swell six-piece orchestra backing this show, I might have winced less.
Corey Regensburg, playing a troubled underachiever up against an adult world that cannot tolerate him, also acts the role without a hitch but gets hung-up on the singing. When he moves out of 19th-century life and into pseudo-punk songs – and sings solo – his suddenly grotesque facial expression and hammer-like body movements annoyingly chew up his lyrics, which are important for understanding what's about to occur.
The show's lovemaking is a fragile scene to be sure, and that's why some productions, including the original, stage it on a swing or some moving platform supposedly in a clearing in the woods. That makes for a gentle and warm affair, with the cast close at hand to sing a floating lyric as encouragement. In Decker's staging, we get a roll on the wooden stage-floor decking, hardly theatrical and also probably uncomfortable. The cast here is off to the sides and the back of the stage, more voyeurs than supporters.
So why would I go see it again? The music, when it's being sung well, especially by the women -- it can make your heart sink or soar, depending on the moment. The versatility of the cast's Catharine K. Slusar and Ian Lithgow, playing all the adult roles. The surprise, to me at least, in hearing the busy local actress Mary Tuomanen in a singing role, delivered with style. The quiet moments in this show, when its bewildered characters are filled with wonderment. The tough times, when their naivety turns into street-smart candor as they sing what they are thinking to themselves.
And most of all, the bittersweet feel of it all, the one the production gets right.
"Spring Awakening" runs through June 9 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. www.theatrehorizon.org or 610-283-2230.