Well, if my editor takes any longer to get back to me, I’ll probably start releasing Pittsburgh Against the World on this website and let the people on the other one play catch up. But in the meantime, I’ll take the opportunity this week to try something different and actually act as a second opinion. So for today’s topic, here’s the lauded musical “Spring Awakening.”

 

 

I’m usually more of a movie guy, but I do have a soft spot for musicals, and when I was asked to see the show performed by the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, I was looking forward to it. I went out of my way to be fair in my review, but I will admit, writing this was cathartic.

Problems Awakening

 

To some, rock musical “Spring Awakening” was an instant classic upon its premiere in 2006, winning a slew of Tony Awards, a Grammy, and more. Now, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama is demonstrating their take the show, and the good news is, under the direction of Tomè Cousin, it comes together in solid fashion. Barring the occasional flat read and the distracting use of chairs with lights built in underneath – which comprise much of the set – CMU offers good acting, good lighting, and quality set pieces, including one that acts as a whole forest. The downside is odd to notice just seven years after the show’s debut: it doesn’t age well.

 

But then, how could it? All “Spring Awakening” ever aspired to be was a novelty show. But whether the writers realized this is doubtful. The same material has been praised as “revolutionary” in musicals for decades now.

 

The show, in short, is a rejection of the conservative mindset, exploring sexual repression in the late nineteenth century. The hero, Melchior (Taylor Jack Hemboldt), is an intelligent atheist teenager who dares to explore his sexuality, and the villains are religious, self-serving parents and teachers. Two other students act as key players; Moritz (Trevor McQueen), who has trouble dealing with both his sexual dreams and the school’s academic standards, and Wendla (Emily Koch), who is growing curious about the sexual side of life but receives no help from her mother, who lies when Wendla asks where babies come from. Wendla then becomes distraught upon learning of the abuse that a friend receives from her parents. Both turn to Melchior, who encourages them to embrace their sexuality and forms a strong mutual attraction with Wendla, and at first, they overcome their troubles. Moritz works through his anxiety and Wendla and Melchior open up to each other, emotionally and sexually. But the big, bad adults are having none of it, raining punishment down on them.

 

The progressive theater crowd usually enjoys these themes, as do I. There’s a liberating sense of fun and freedom to them. Their sympathetic look at rebellious nonconformity enables shows to explore people’s motivations at both ends of the spectrum. “Hair,” for example, followed a youth who wasn’t sure what he wanted during the Vietnam War, turning to the liberating hipsters. The story, and all the rebellious and sexual practices it highlighted, made bold statements on the true desires of both the war’s supporters and detractors.

 

But “Spring Awakening” is impressed with itself for exploring this territory at all. It knows there’s an audience for this subject matter and delivers as though no show has done so before. It has a character use apples as a dramatic metaphor for his teacher’s breasts. It adds an inconsequential pair of homosexual classmates who aren’t seen again after their single love scene. Its “message” – that freely sexual behavior is good, and religious conservatism is bad – is less a message than it is gloating with those who like the idea of open sexuality. But that’s not to say it doesn’t tap into some of the fun of its material as well.

 

There is humor to be found throughout the show, even in the darker points. Koch’s delivery of the line “but mother, I am not married!” shows especially good comic timing. (That’s the punch line. See the show for the joke.) The uncensored expressiveness is welcoming and conveyed well by the songs, my favorite being the bubblegum pop tune My Junk, which puts a sweet spin on the girls’ romantic fantasies. I’m still not sure what to think of Totally Fucked, which is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s both the most superfluous (had it not been in the character’s head, I would have expected a punch line pointing out that a simple “yes” or “no” would have done just as well) and the most catchy of all the songs in the show. That only Melchior knew the risk becomes inexcusably problematic, but his sex scene with Wendla is rather touching. The two turn to each other in what plays as a passionate and soothing release of all their repressed feelings, marked by the ardent song I Believe. It’s these aspects together that carry the first act.

 

However, new problems arise from the show’s aspiration to also be a tragedy, which it becomes in the second act without craft or convincing progression: Over the course of one scene, a student has been kicked out of his home and contemplates suicide. His former classmate, now a bohemian, makes her first of two appearances (the second being brief and unnecessary) and they reminisce, instantly falling for each other. She invites him to her house, and he resists for no clear reason, just long enough for her to give up and leave. Now that it’s “too late,” he changes his mind, but with no alternative more feasible than following her all the way to her house, he goes back to plan A. The show continues to hit us with these depressing turns, the plot becoming a clothesline to hang them on, until it grows tiresome.

 

Spring Awakening’s heart is in the right place, wanting to stand for liberation and understanding, but it’s mistaken in assuming that it has insight and originality on its side. It understands which conventions made major impacts on audiences before, but it does not understand why; by making the characters opposed to them one-dimensional villains, it has missed the chance to explore why – or if – its heroes are truly heroic for embracing them. What’s left is an empty attempt to up the ante. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.