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Forward With Spring Awakening

Broadway in Houston presents a controversial musical

Philip Larkin famously wrote, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." Of course, the English poet wasn't speaking about the dreadful parents in Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's 2007 Tony Award-­winning musical Spring Awakening, but he might as well have been. The sorrowful tale about a group of teens living in small-town Germany circa the 1890s is full of shitty parents who do nothing but bad by their ­offspring.

Based on a once controversial play by Frank Wedekind (he couldn't even get it produced), the rock musical focuses on a sexually curious girl named Wendla (Christy Altomare) and her equally curious provincial friends. We follow these beautiful and repressed teens through their dark and melancholic world of furtive sexual awakenings. Boys masturbate, girls whisper about incestuous fathers, couples copulate. None of this is particularly new to the world of literature, but in the generally squeaky-clean land of the Broadway musical, this stuff is explosive. And the powerful new rock-infused music about everything from cruel mothers to the addictive nature of love will shake up every idea you might have about what a musical can do.

In the opening, a heartbreaking, almost ancient sound stirs the very marrow of your bones — it's the string instruments of the small band sitting onstage with the actors, scraping out the lonely notes that foreshadow all the wistful shadows hidden in this tale about sex and teenagers. The lovely Wendla is at center stage, and when she opens her mouth to sing, out pours the sweetest sound and the saddest lyrics: "Mama who bore me, Mama who gave me — no way to handle things, who made me so sad." This idea ought to catch in the throat of any parent sitting in the audience. All teenage Wendla wants to know is where babies come from, but her mother is too embarrassed to tell her the truth. And you better believe this mother's lies come back to haunt both her and her daughter in a big way.

For a Broadway musical, this is explosive.
Paul Kolnik
For a Broadway musical, this is explosive.

Other adults violate these kids. Moritz (Blake Bashoff), a wild-haired ne'er-do-well at school, is shamed by his teachers and father alike simply because he's too tormented by his inner angst to concentrate on Latin. In the anachronistic rock tune "The Bitch of Living," he stomps out a beat and wails, "Help me out of this nightmare." The others boys jump in, and with Bill T. Jones's wonderfully organic choreography, they pound out the moves and a sound that captures all the ­testosterone-laden rage of a room of always-horny boys who are never allowed to speak of what their bodies desire. The mixing of rock sounds with the world of Germany in the 1890s works surprisingly well, as the music speaks to an inner life that these repressed kids are desperate to ­articulate.

While the boys are rocking out, Wendla is busy falling hard for Melchior (Kyle Riabko), a smart, good-looking, secret iconoclast who just wants to help his buddy Moritz and love Wendla. He even tries to please her after she is oddly excited by a friend's revelation that her father beats her.

All this culminates in a sensual and lyric ending to Act One, shaped around an image created in part by Christine Jones's scenic design. At center stage is a moving set piece that rocks Wendla and Melchior as they embrace.

Act Two is dappled with disturbing moments that recall everything from the Greeks to Shakespeare. Ghosts and darkness haunt this landscape, which is twisted into ugliness by the cruel adults, all played by Kate Fuglei and Henry Stram. And in fact, the only criticism of this phenomenal show is that as good as Fuglei and Stram are, they can't dig too deeply into characters who appear briefly, and when they do, make uniformly bad decisions.

Technically, the musical is as innovative as its writing. Not only is the band onstage, but so are some members of the audience. And the cast often goes to sit with them in the bleacher-like seats that stand on the sidelines of the stage. Kevin Adams's lights, whose workings are visible to the audience, recall everything from the tawdriness of a wild concert to the loneliness of a starlit night. Susan Hilferty's simple and monastic costumes remind us that this is a world that doesn't allow anyone to acknowledge that they have bodies underneath their woolen frocks. All this dusky intensity comes together under Michael Mayer's lush direction, which captures what it means to be young and hungry and forever in a state of unspeakable longing.

 
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