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Spring Awakening

At Zach, foot-stomping teens score a victory for love and courage over fear

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Oct. 21, 2011

Arts Review
Photo courtesy of Kirk R. Tuck

Spring Awakening

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541
www.zachtheatre.org
Through Nov. 13
Running time: 2 hrs., 30 min.

One thing you should not do before going to see Spring Awakening at Zach Theatre is read a detailed plot summary to brush up on your Frank Wedekind (the author of the original 1891 play). As told via a point-by-point plot rundown, the story comes off dismal and depressing. The magic of this contemporary musical adaptation (book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik) is to follow such a story and deliver the audience at a place of life-affirming understanding.

The story begins with the teenage Wendla (Sara Burke) asking her mother (Melissa Grogan) where babies come from. This is the Victorian Era, and her mother is too embarrassed to tell her daughter anything useful. This scene is followed by one at the schoolhouse, where the schoolmaster (Jason Phelps) whips his pupils for the slightest failure of memory. This pattern of adult behavior sets the pattern for the play: shame and anger, shame and anger. In this complicated environment, the teenage characters explore their emerging intellect and sexuality, fighting the repression of their elders to accept themselves and their bodies. It's a sexually explicit but tasteful play; more difficult than the scenes of intimacy are the scenes of tragedy. Not every young person can fight his or her way through the minefield of adolescence.

Even if today's representation of sexuality is more open, the frustrations and heartbreaks suffered by Spring Awakening's teenage characters are universal. So is the full-throated rock music that erupts from these Victorian youths as they struggle against a restrictive social structure that gives them no tools to understand and navigate the messiness of life. The joy of the show, and the one that sends its audience out with a greater acceptance of themselves, even, is to see the surviving teenage characters emerge from the wreck of their youth determined to hold on to the beautiful things they have discovered in spite of their elders.

The final scene mars the effect just slightly. Seeing that a modern family can correct some of the wrongs of this earlier generation offers a nice resolution, but at the same time, it seems to suggest that the travails of the teenage years have been solved. If that's the case, then where is the victory of triumph? Besides, any tour of a junior high school will tell you that young people still have it rough, in their own way.

The casting in Zach's production, directed by Michael Baron with musical direction by Allen Robertson, is good, especially considering that a number of the performers are still teenagers themselves. To the credit of the younger cast members, it isn't immediately apparent which actors have years of experience and which are still in high school. The show makes good use of its minimalist set (by Michael Raiford). The choreography (Andrea Beckham) mimics the foot-stomping rock & roll moves used in the Broadway production. It wisely avoids falling into the trap of trying to unify its dancers too much; characters yearning to express their individuality need the freedom of variety.

In the end, the Victorian/rock combo is the draw, but the reward is in the story. It's not just youth triumphant, either: It's the victory of love and courage over fear.

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