What a treat that this hypnotic, breakthrough musical play is finally in Atlanta, if only for a week, at the Fox through Sunday, March 14. Broadway’s 2007 Tony-winning Best Musical is provocative, evocative, erotic, and filled with the sad, sweet music of sex as a central metaphor for life’s mystery. Based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind about teenagers discovering themselves and their sexuality in the absence of any parental guidance or discussion of such a “forbidden” topic, the young people are left to fend for themselves. The play was initially banned for 15 years.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. So here’s your caveat for the show, courtesy of the producers: “Spring Awakening” contains mature themes, sexual situations, partial nudity, and strong language. Unquote. Now that we’re clear on that, let’s marvel at the beauty of this award-winning play.
Lovely young Wendla (Christy Altomare) asks her mother about where babies come from, but her mother (Angela Reed) cannot and will not talk about it. This scene is played whimsically, but its repercussions are very serious indeed. When Wendla meets the charismatic Melchior (Matt Shingledecker, evidently understudying this week for Jake Epstein), they sing “The Word of Your Body” even as Melchior ponders how shame and ignorance are the source of much human misery.
Perhaps the central tragic figure is Moritz (Taylor Trensch), Melchior’s best friend, who sings “Don’t Do Sadness.” This role was played brilliantly on Broadway by John Gallagher, Jr, who won a Best Supporting Actor Tony (Mr. Trensch is quite fine as well). The original Melchior (Jonathan Groff) and Wendla (Lea Michele) are establishing solid careers on stage, TV, and film. If I may name drop a bit, I must say that Mr. Gallagher, Ms. Michele, and Mr. Groff are three completely charming young people (as well as talented): I was privileged to talk at some length with all three when I saw the play (twice) on Broadway. Yes, I am one of “The Guilty Ones”–the Facebook name for die-hard fans of the show.
If, perchance, you’re a young person who “doesn’t like musicals,” I must tell you that the songs here are performed as interior monologues, voicing only the thoughts and feelings of the characters. And though the play is still set in 1891, it takes on a decided modern rock bent when microphones are suddenly produced for many of the songs. This may sound like a hopeless mishmash, but it all works—beautifully. The book and lyrics are by Steven Sater; Duncan Sheik composed the music.
Though the show is powerful and pulls no punches, it also has a delicate, ethereal quality to it. It is true that our beloved Fox Theatre is simply too large for a play that invites intimacy like “Spring Awakening,” so unless you’ve got a really good seat, you’ll miss some of the magic. But this cast is outstanding (choreography by Bill T. Jones, direction by Michael Mayer), so go anyway. You’ll enjoy it, you may even love it, and you’ll mingle with a lot of “ the guilty ones.”