Smell That Teen Spirit in Spring Awakening at TUTS

All mixed up and looking for answers.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
All mixed up and looking for answers.
It should come as no surprise that late 19th-century Teutonic teens were just as randy and angsty as our Gen Zs. Raging hormones know no century.

Smartly adapted from German playwright Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, his 1891 experimental and scathing indictment of bourgeois hypocrisy toward adolescent budding sexuality, this 2006 Tony-winning musical shows us that nothing has changed. Placing pre-Weimar Germany into a contemporary musical context of alt-rock and screeching guitar riffs brings these ancient teens smack into the present. Everything old is new again.

A precursor of Bertolt Brecht, the cabaret of Friedrich Hollaender, and the satiric drawings of George Grosz, Wedekind didn't tweak the middle class, he kicked it in the ass. His plays reeked with sex and punctured conventional morality with Jack the Ripper slashes. His expressionistic and meta-theatrical pieces were often censored, if not outright banned from the stage after a second performance. A theater outlaw, he changed theater forever.

Though softened and planed down, his “Lulu cycle” masterworks, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, reached the silent screen in 1929 in G. W. Pabst's classic example of German expressionism and hedonistic revelry. Silent screen icon Louise Brooks became an international star with her incandescent performance. A few years later, Marlene Dietrich would portray an amoral Wedekind-inspired Lola in Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, outclassing even Brooks.

Spring Awakening deals with much younger rootless characters. These teens are horny, clueless, and at the mercy of their changing bodies. Their parents are no help, as much victims of their past as their children are victims of the present. They can't talk about sex to their children, they can't even talk about sex to their spouses. They're respectable burghers and wives. The facts of life aren't ever discussed, they're not even thought of. So the kids are on their own. Teachers are useless; the clergy more so. The young cope with their fantasies and wet dreams by themselves. Without adult guidance and education, the path leads downhill – fast.

Awakening covers the gamut of teen sexual experience, first with comic frustration (masturbation), then with horrid consequences: parental abuse, pregnancy, abortion, and suicide. There's a gay encounter that at first seems opportunistic, but during “The Word of Your Body,” Hanchen and Ernst find peace and fulfillment. These guys may survive – not with each other – but both of them may have a future. It's the one ray of hope.

But don't be put off. This show is not a downer, even though the lead characters don't survive as a couple. The lucky ones grow up, and the ones who haven't survived aren't forgotten. They're ever-present (“Those You've Known”), standing by, over one's shoulder, leading one onward. The pain remains, but the ghosts give them strength.

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, composer and librettist, fill this story with rousing rock ballads and basic Broadway belt. Listen how “The Bitch of Living” pounds from sad-sack Moritz's head, leading his fellow schoolboys to twist and shout their own pent-up desperation, pedaling their desks across the stage. There are sudden shifts and abrupt stops to the numbers, just like manic teens. Suddenly, Martha confesses her abuse from her father, “The Dark I Know Well,” which stops us short with its naked emotion. Throughout, the show is beautifully paced by director Taibi Magar, balancing rawness against innocence.

In the Wedekind/Sheik/Sater universe, parents and authority figures are blind. One bad mark can send a sensitive kid over the edge. Telling your daughter that “loving your husband” is all you need to know about the marital bed is fraught with dire consequences.

Although none of the cast could pass for teenagers, the production is so slick and polished we hardly notice. We do notice, however, that the great maw of the Hobby eats sound like an hors d'oeuvre. The onstage orchestra drowns out the singers, and most of Sater's lyrics are lost in the ether. We want to hear these teens sing their angst. What we get is muffled and half-baked. Come on guys, get it together and fix this problem. TUTS prides itself as Houston's premiere Broadway musical venue. If we can't hear the lyrics, we miss half the musical.

Everyone throws themselves completely into the show. The cast is exemplary. Sophia Introna and Wonza Johnson, as young lovers Wendla and Melchior, possess sexy youth and power-ballad voices; Nathan Salstone, as doomed, sex-obsessed Moritz, tears at our heart with his plaintive “Don't Do Sadness;” and Raven Justine Troup, as Moritz's unrequited love Ilsa, should have more to do than her lovely “Blue Wind” in Act II.

Houston Theater Award-winning scenic designer Ryan McGettigan works his pictorial magic in his industrial set of steel pipes and staircases; while lighting designer Bradley King keeps the sexual tension shadowy and tryst-like, even with his background grid of muted spotlights. Perhaps the most intriguing element is Marlana Doyle's stomping, jumpy, twitchy choreography. When the chorus isn't sitting in the background like silent witnesses, they suddenly erupt in spasms of ecstasy or unbridled passion, thumping their way to the edge of the stage, confronting us with uncontrolled libido. Get out of their way. Teen spirit is infectious.

A deserved, multiple Tony Award-winning musical, Spring Awakening bursts with freshness and audacity. It has fire and heartbreak. It dives into the past to make the present more manageable. While we can never totally control the impulses that lie beneath, Broadway has the magic to bring our secrets to the surface and make them a bit more understandable.

Spring Awakening continues through October 20 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays at Theatre Under the Stars at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40 - $129.