High-energy tragedy and backflips in a mosh pit8/13/2014
What hooked me was the bit with the table. Early on in “Spring Awakening,” the in-the-round set converts to a boys’ classroom, with no more props than chairs and a table. Once the “Master” quits the room, his teen charges explode. They tear into “The Bitch of Life,” spitting out profanity in a snarl, and looking all the more ferocious for their old-fangled knickers and lace-ups. In no time, they’re pitching each other off the table. A boy lies on top, singing, and the others hoist one end and dump him onto the floor. He sticks a gymnast’s landing, still singing.
The cast of “Awakening,” excepting two adults who play multiple roles (kudos to the chameleonic Mark John Conley), are mostly Drake students playing younger — on the verge of hormonal eruption. The music isn’t just rock, it’s punk rock, and the mosh-pit provides release from unhappy linked narratives of thwarted love. “Bitch” gets done one better, in the second act, by “You’re Fucked,” and the company rose to the challenge. I doubt I’ll soon see another handspring followed by a backflip under the fluttering confetti of torn textbook pages at the center of a dozen young people belting tuneful obscenities.
Back in 2006, “Awakening” copped a bevy of Tonys. From Broadway it went on to international success, in part because its tensions couldn’t be more familiar. The adolescents start feeling their oats — and their friends — and the old folks get edgy. The conflict takes on extra intensity in the suffocating bourgeois culture of 1890s Germany. Parents won’t even teach their kids the facts of life, and a back-alley abortion seems preferable to social disgrace. For suggesting this was no way to live, the original play (1891) was banned.
In the American update, the kids may say “fuck,” but they still don’t grasp the concept. Sexual tension among the four leads, two of each gender, results in a string of tragedies, remarkable for a hit show. There may be two teen suicides, the second open to interpretation. Some uplift comes in the hymn-like finale, “Song of Purple Summers” — but the true relief resides in the mosh pit.
While the dancing never flagged, the singing suffered brief letdowns. Tom Mann as Melchior struggled with his lower register, and Stuart Kofron as Ernst with high notes. But each had their triumphs too, and among the girls, Miranda Luze as Ilse showed off both impressive pipes and sharp comic instincts. Overall, though, the heart of the turmoil beat in two of the doomed: Brooke Greenberg as Wendla and Adam Jedlicka as Moritz. Neither has a conventional heart-throb build or face, but neither ever failed to get across their desires and doubts. A sigh from either could knock anyone off the table.
Overheard in the Lobby: This is the company’s last show as Des Moines Onstage; next fall they’ll be Des Moines Young Artists’ Theater, based in the Social Club. The building on Grand will serve other theatrical outfits. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.