Review: Spring Awakening in Austin



So I happened to see one of those ubiquitous sliding internet ads for The Book of Mormon, which eventually morphed into Ben Brantley’s claim that Mormon is “The Best Musical of This Century!” Now, I realize we live in age of both instant superlatives and instant forgetfulness, but really, I don’t think that assertion can stand. If we cast our minds back even a few years, there’s clearly competition: the clever Brechtian parable of Urinetown, for instance, or the Sesame Street spoof Avenue Q. Indeed, I’m not even sure if the Book of Mormon, for all its charms, is even the best musical to set the word “fuck” to music.

Because Mormon clearly has competition in Spring Awakening, which is, for me, the clear winner of musicals with “fuck” in the libretto—and perhaps those without. And part of what makes Spring Awakening so wonderful is that it’s unafraid to break the cardinal rule of musical theater: that songs should propel the plot. In Spring Awakening the songs almost never propel the plot: instead, this taut and trim version of Wedekind’s 1891 play achieves moments of such terrible tension that there’s nothing to be done but dissolve the plot entirely and launch (er, spring) into hard-rocking, emotional anthems of angst and desire.

And it works, beautifully so. Wedekind’s play—a tragic tale of teenagers ‘protected’ from the adult work of sexuality by enforced ignorance—shows the terrible price to be paid in the service of a repugnant ideology. And in a city with a skyrocketing teen pregnancy rate, it’s nothing less than a scandal that San Antonio’s artistic directors have yet to mount a production. (In the meantime, we can now sip our beers and enjoy repeats of Chicago and Rent. Sigh.)

So at least in the short term, there’s nothing to be done but drive up to the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, where Spring Awakening plays for one more weekend. Though not as perfectly cast as their last offering of Hairspray, Spring Awakening is nonetheless a strong production; indeed, the smaller space of the Zach Scott occasionally highlights the virtues of Spring Awakening better than a Broadway house.  As the hot-blooded teenage hunk Melchior, Johnny Newcomb acts well, but sometimes has difficulty navigating the frequent falsetto passages in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s emo-inflected score; that’s not a problem for Jordan Barron’s excellent Moritz or (obviously) for Sara Burke’s tragic Wendla. Michael Baron does a fine job with the young and enthusiastic cast, more than a few of whom are actually in high school (like the characters they portray). At times, however, Baron overplays the stereotypes into caricature—there’s an unnecessarily large dollop of decadence in Josh Wechler’s homosexual Handschen, for instance, and Melissa Grogan’s stern headmistress seems too obviously Symbolic of Oppression.

On Broadway, Bill T. Jones took home the Tony for his angular, anarchic choreography, and while there’s some of that at the Zach Scott, Andrea Beckham generally softens the dance sequences: it’s less fractal, more traditional, than the New York production. There’s also some ace lighting design by Jason Amato on Michael Raiford’s simple, tree-swept set, which occasionally springs awakes with jolts of neon color. At last Saturday’s performance, the audience was visibly moved by the second act’s wonderful closing twist, by costume designer Michael McDonald. (I don’t wish to give away the surprise—but it actually one-ups the original production.)

I occasionally receive emails that complain that I don’t cover enough San Antonio theater,  or that I generally give the nod to Austin theater, or that I’m forever comparing SA to Dallas and Houston, etc. Well, of course. That’s what a critic does: I compare, weigh, and evaluate theatrical production across different types of theaters (Equity and non-Equity), spaces, and cities. If I keep harping on the inexplicable absence of Spring Awakening from SA’s theatrical scene, it’s because the production at the Zach Scott proves—again—that Austin cares far more about keeping current with contemporary trends in national theater than San Antonio does. For my money—and in particular, my gas money—Spring Awakening is the best musical so far of the 21st century. It’s worth the drive to see it on its last weekend in Austin, particularly since the tour never came to SA.

-Thomas 'Germany Rocks!" Jenkins, Current theatre critic.