ORLANDO – There are so many hot button social issues imbedded in the story behind the play “Spring Awakening” – including abortion, teen suicide, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, rape, child abuse, and homosexuality — that by the end, you may start to wonder why the writers didn’t also toss racism, poverty and world famine into the mix.
“Spring Awakening” has the feel of an epic melodrama, the kind that presents us with young people in such desperate throes of anguish and inner torment that you can almost see the words “Important Social Statement” flash across the stage from time to time. What’s unique about the production, though, is despite the melodramatic trappings, it doesn’t feel one bit melodramatic. You might say that owes quite a bit to a clash of two very different styles of theater, two very opposite ways of conveying emotion, passion, pity and pain. Watching “Spring Awakening” is also a fascinating reminder of how theater – not to mention the whole concept of the “message” play – has changed so dramatically over the last century.
For starters, “Spring Awakening” is a rock musical, and a very good one – although it should surprise no one to learn that it wasn’t back when the play had its very first production – in 1906. German dramatist Frank Wedekind wrote this play – not-so-ironically subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy” – as an attack on Germany’s sexually-oppressive culture, a good three decades before Hitler’s rise to an even more dangerously oppressive society. Not surprisingly, the play’s frank discussion of teen sexuality has gotten it banned numerous times, including in the first staged English version in New York City in 1917, when the city’s Commissioner of Licenses claimed it was pornographic.
Fast forward 94 years, and not one of these themes couldn’t make the 8 o’clock family hour on television, let alone a host of reality shows that make “Spring Awakening” seem tame by comparison. What’s interesting in watching the play being performed today is the radically different styles that dramatists used a century ago; his teen characters don’t just experience unhappiness, they carry the weight of the world on their young shoulders, and the adults are such stark villains that you can see the authors calling on all of us, as a collective society, to hang our heads in shame – not a style that’s been used much since perhaps the late 1950s, if not earlier.
And yet … in adapting the original story into a rock musical, musician Duncan Sheik and lyricists/playwright Steve Sater knew what they were doing. The overripe emotions that could have made the original seem stylistically outdated prove to be much more effective when the teens express their hopes, confusion and anger through rock songs rather than dialogue. What may have seemed melodramatic in the original, at least by today’s standards, has some real juice, some real electricity, in these songs. From the adolescent girl who laments the fact that her mother never taught her what she needs to know about life (“Mama Who Bore Me”) to the teenage boy who, kicked out of his parent’s home for failing at school, wanders the streets alone with a gun (“Don’t Do Sadness”), the play’s dramatic impact only gets more potent as each character’s plight goes from bad to worse.
The play follows a group of German teens as they come of age and, more importantly, experience strong sexual awakenings. Early on, while a group of boys are studying in Latin class — under the guidance of a strict, rigid professor — one of the boys, Moritz, leans over to a classmate and describes a dream he’s been having – one that his friend, Melchior, recognizes as an erotic dream. Poor Moritz is worried – he’s been told dreams like this are an early indication of oncoming insanity. Melchior, on the other hand, has read about sexual information in books, and reassures his buddy that all boys get dreams like that at their age.
Hence, the play’s central theme – a lack of honest, forthright information about what teenagers experience is a whole lot better than shrill lies about how anything having to do with sex is dirty and disgusting. Wedekind never envisioned that the Internet, cable TV and DVDs would arrive one day, and kids would no longer have to rely on mom, dad or the repressed middle aged school teacher for sexual facts.
But if “Spring Awakening” doesn’t feel like an episode of “Jersey Shore,” the heated emotions that these characters go through work quite effectively in a musical setting, and a very talented cast brings the teens’ saga to life. Anthony Pyatt Jr., as Melchior, and Melina Countryman, as Wendla, do a superb job conveying the innocence of a teen stumbling on their own for answers, but being overwhelmed by the complexity of their forceful, sometimes contradictory emotions.
The Greater Orlando Actors Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater uses a relatively bare stage with almost no set design, but the use of theater in the round – the audience sits on all four sides of the room – works quite well as the actors stay in almost constant motion, including the many well staged song and dance routines. Even more effective are some of the quieter, and intensely sad and moving, moments when the play’s stark German origins resurface. Since rock music lends itself well to heated emotions, the songs if anything make Wedekind’s original saga that much more involving. A cast that knows not only how to sing beautifully, but also to capture the sensitivity of their character’s plight, only makes it that much more gripping.
“Spring Awakening” plays through Labor Day Weekend, with the final show on Sunday, Sept. 4. The performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Log on to Goatgroup.org for tickets, or call 407-872-8451 to learn more.
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