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'Spring Awakening' review: Teen angst at its most powerful

Alex Joseph Grayson, foreground, leads the cast in

Alex Joseph Grayson, foreground, leads the cast in "Spring Awakening" at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon. Photo Credit: Russ Rowland

WHAT "Spring Awakening"

WHERE Argyle Theatre, 34 W. Main St., Babylon

INFO From $49; 844-631-5483, argyletheatre.com

BOTTOM LINE The Argyle ups its game with this indie rock musical about the sexual yearnings of hormonal adolescents.

Teen angst is something of a staple on Broadway right now, between the backstabbing cliques in "Mean Girls," the bullying of "Dear Evan Hansen" and — coming soon — the outcasts of "Be More Chill."

But the territory is far from new. Consider German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play "Spring Awakening," a work so controversial he couldn’t get it produced for 15 years. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater turned it into a musical in 2006, winning eight Tony Awards. With its intense, unforgiving look at the turbulent sexual yearnings of hormonal adolescents and covering hot button issues like incest, abortion and suicide, the show might be considered an ambitious (risky?) choice for the Argyle Theatre in its opening season. But the Babylon company has upped its game on every level here, with a visually striking, flawlessly cast production. 

The story focuses on four students — brainy, charismatic leader Melchior (Alex Joseph Grayson), melancholic Wendla (Corrie Farbstein), slacker Moritz (David Thomas Cronin) and free spirit Ilse (Emily Nash). All the adults — parents, priest, teacher, headmaster, etc. — are amazingly played by two actors, Monica Bell and John Anker Bow.

The power of this show has always been the disconnect between its setting, a rigid German school, where we first meet the young men of the cast reciting from Virgil in Latin, and the indie rock score, sung in clearly contemporary style. Director Matthew Earnest effectively straddles the divide, establishing enough clarity to make it work. Adding significantly to the production is the interesting contemporary choreography of Sara Brians, the strong pit led by music director Jonathan Brenner, and William Bezek's soaring set.

While the music — from wrenching ballads to energetic anthems — is beautiful and haunting, the show is not easy to watch. These kids are almost always in pain (rarely do any of them crack a smile) and unlike our current moment of helicopter parenting, the adults in this tale offer little guidance or support, ultimately resulting in a series of hard-to-stomach tragedies.

On its deepest level, the play is a plea for parents to talk more openly with their kids. "Spring Awakening" opens with Wendla imploring her mother to explain where babies come from, but she gets no adequate answer. (A woman must love her husband "as she can love only him" doesn't cut it.) Desperate to feel something, she begs Melchior to beat her and when he reluctantly does, the emotions quickly turn to something else. Eventually she gets an answer to her question, but one that comes far too late. The subtitle to Wedekind's play says it all: "A Children's Tragedy." 

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