Wednesday, March 4, 2009

'Spring Awakening,' a timeless, iconoclastic look

Moritz contemplates his existential plight in the song "And Then There Were None" in the national tour of "Spring Awakening."

Spring Awakening" is no Broadway musical. Which is why it's a Broadway musical for today.

Cleveland on Tuesday night became one of only a handful of cities in the country visited by the superb national tour of this important work of art.

That's when "Spring Awakening" busted open a two-week stand at the Palace Theatre, where it delighted young people who don't generally go in for Broadway musicals, and befuddled and occasionally shocked the older, traditional crowd, which nonetheless hung in there and sometimes even grooved.

"Spring Awakening" is different, for starters, because it's based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, banned for years in the author's native Germany ostensibly for its unblinking look at adolescents discovering their sexuality and their ability to think independently.

Ostensibly because while there is sex (hetero and homo), as well as masturbation, child abuse, abortion and suicide, the threatening thing about the play is that it forces adult authority figures -- teachers, parents, pastors -- to face the fact that they mess up their kids as much as help.

And, it suggests, that we all might be better off if instead of trying to make our kids be like us, we might consider trying to be more like them: Curious, questioning, adventuresome.

Second, playwright and lyricist Steven Slater and alt-rock singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik had no interest in trying to turn this nonconformist story into a traditional Broadway show.

There's much to love in "Showboat," "Okahoma!" and "Guys and Dolls, but those musicals, while timeless, were products of their time. Timeless classics can only be treasured when they're enjoyed beside challenging contemporary work, and vice-versa.

And "Spring Awakening" is timeless, filled with angry anthems about the pain of growing and the stupidity of screwing up, with gorgeous and haunting ballads about being abused by a parent and finding inspiration in loved ones, alive and dead.

The creators and director Michael Mayer make it a play and a rock concert, the kids toggling back and forth from the 19th century to the 21st century, speaking classically but rocking out hard and scratching their itches in Bill T. Jones' searching choreography.

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