Theatre Review: Spring Awakening, NYC 5/18/08 (Matinee and Evening)

“Those you’ve pained may carry that still with them
All the same, they whisper: “All forgiven”
Still your heart says, the shadows bring the starlight
And everything you’ve ever been is still there in the dark night…”

Those You’ve Known – Spring Awakening

Some time ago, a good friend passed me the soundtrack recording of a new musical that was creating a stir as the ‘new Rent’.  Both of us being Rent fans, she’d checked it out and promptly loved the soundtrack so much, she wanted me to hear it.  Into the iTunes it went, and I listened… And re-listened… And promptly decided that I had to agree that Spring Awakening was to this decade what Rent was to the 90’s.  Set in late 1800’s Europe, at the peak of the sexual repression that would shape many of Freud’s theories on psychology, the story of Melchior, Wendla and Moritz plays as a Shakespearean tragedy with contemporary rock-opera song.  The sad irony, and perhaps the reason behind its resonance with youth and adults alike, is that the atmosphere in our society now, particularly the United States, has come full circle to a similar agenda of abstinence-based education and denial of the sexual yearnings of youth to the point where death and ruined lives plague those left to fumble, to awaken, in the dark.

I’d longed to see the production on Broadway, to see the original cast members, all of whom are incredibly gifted performers.  In a testament to the younger audience it has left in a state of awe and rapture, video bootlegs have surfaced over time of complete performances, and I’d made do with these, witnessing the story unfold, singing every word, memorizing dialogue.  But as with Les Miserables, a musical that captured my heart through its cast recording at the age of 11 but remained unseen on stage until I was 24, I knew seeing it would be a dramatically different experience.  When the aforementioned friend offered the chance to see the final performance of the two original leads, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, I hesitated only briefly before seizing my last chance to see the majority of the Original Broadway Cast intact.

Spring Awakening has a unique seating offer that makes the experience remarkable:  on-stage seating.  To facilitate the performance and its staging, actors are often seated on the stage to the sides.  To prevent the chairs from looking very empty at points in the show, the production offers the ability to purchase $40 seats on the stage.  The low price is due to the seats being considered ‘obstructed viewing’.  My friend was fortunate enough to snag a pair of these onstage seats for the matinee performance on Lea and Jonathan’s last day, ensuring we would see their final two performances, one from each perspective.  For this, I am incredibly grateful.

Onstage seating is surreal;  at points, the ensemble and cast scattered amongst the viewers stand on chairs around you and sing, while the action unfolds a scant few feet away, or behind you at times.  From this eagle-eye vantage point, you’re also privy to audience reactions and to the smooth transitions of scenes and just how the cast works together to keep the show seamless, right down to actors helping in functions usually reserved for stage hands.  The show is demanding emotionally and physically, and these talented actors embrace it lovingly, passionately, in the same way that Anthony Rapp et al. embody Rent and its message.  It’s incredibly hard – almost dizzying – to keep track of all the action during larger numbers like Totally Fucked, but it’s well worth it.  Seeing the show from the Orchestra later was more of a ‘big picture’ view, which also has its benefits for a production that is so full of energy and movement.  For that reason, I recommend seeing it from both views if possible.

Without spoiling the key plot points, the story centres around Melchior Gabor, a young gifted student who has rejected religion and the values of society, seeking a more utopian and equality-driven world.  His assertions that school should be co-ed are radical for the time, and his book-derived knowledge of human sexuality and reproduction sets him far beyond the blinders-on parents of his world.  His best friend Moritz Stiefel, plagued by his own puberty and the lust it brings with it, comes to him for guidance, and Melchior is happy to provide.  At the same time, Wendla Bergman seeks the same answers from her mother, only to be told that children are made when a woman loves a man ‘with her whole heart’.  The children of Spring Awakening are left fumbling in the dark with their fears, their longings, their loves and the poignant and painful interactions with parents who still subscribe to the belief that children are meant to merely obey.  The refusal to be honest and open by the adults of the story gives away to heartache and tragedy for the youth, a message all too relevant now.

The production and its story are moving on their own, but to witness the departure of the two leads was the most intense theatrical experience I have ever been privy to.  Cast members frequently shed tears between knowing smiles during scenes and in the wings.  Songs with themes of lost friends left the audience weeping.  The applause was intense after each major number.  The evening show became a roaring concert of appreciation for Lea and Jonathan, both gifted and incredible players, and the crowd’s enthusiasm repeatedly left Lea in tears, at points scarcely able to sing.  When a play opens and there is literally a five-minute standing ovation to simply greet the entry on stage of the female lead, you know you are beholding something magical.  The final ‘rock’ number of the show, Totally Fucked, gave rise to an all-out enthusiastic delivery by Groff and an 8-minute standing ovation as cast members struggled to hold their poses, with only the beginning of the next song’s notes ceasing the outpouring of love.  It was rather obvious that most in attendance were hardcore fans, family and former cast members celebrating the end of an era in the production’s history, and I found myself more affected by the show the second time around because of the audience and cast feeding into each other.  At times, I was breathless.   Those You’ve Known, the penultimate number featuring Lea, Jonathan and Blake Bashoff (Moritz) was gut-wrenching and depleted most of my tissue stash.
The entire cast is gifted beyond the telling, but a few deserve a few lines of special mention here.

Lea Michele:  Lea Michele had been with Spring Awakening since its workshop phase, long before the success and fame it has achieved.  She will forever be the first Wendla, and she has left a legacy hard to follow upon.  Watching her perform, it is obvious she lives and breathes the role, seamlessly switching from adult woman to young adolescent.  Her voice is gorgeous and incredibly evocative, and the live performances of the songs put the Grammy-winning cast recording to shame.  Every bit of applause was well-deserved, and she is also a genuine and sweet person to talk to at stage door, very gracious of her time.

Jonathan Groff:  Jonathan Groff had been with the cast since Off-Broadway and like Lea, he embodies Melchior so completely it is as if it’s his second skin.  Particularly strong were his performances of Left Behind, Totally Fucked and Those You’ve Known.  Unlike Lea, he wasn’t so much in tears at the incredible outpourings of audience appreciation as delighted, as if he felt happy to have affected so many people in such a strong way.  He was celebrating and savouring the last moments.  He too has left a legacy and will be missed, and he was also very friendly at the stage door.  We waited a rather long time for him and despite how exhausted he looked, he smiled, chatted for a while and thanked me for ‘coming all this way’ (Toronto to New York) to see the final shows.

Blake Bashoff:  Blake is more familiar to many as Karl from the TV series Lost.  Blake impressed me greatly because of the way he has managed to fill an important role so well.  The original Moritz, John Gallagher Jr., won a Tony award for his portrayal of Moritz and very deservedly so, and I had to admit walking in that I was afraid that my YouTube enjoyment of John would leave me endlessly comparing Blake to him and finding him inferior.  However, in some ways, he delivered a stronger performance than Gallagher, while in other places I found myself slightly preferring the original Moritz.  Overall, he’s stepped into enormous shoes and filled them incredibly well, and he too was super-sweet and gracious at the stage door, tolerating my double-fangirl ineptitude with a camera.  Being a huge Lost fan, I’d have to say meeting him was as surreal as meeting Lea or Jonathan.

Lilli Cooper:  Lilli portrays Martha Bessel, who delivers one of my favourite numbers of the entire show, The Dark I Know Well.  She gave me chills live,  I was stunned into teary-eyed silence.  I look forward to seeing her in other things and a part of me longs to see her final show as well (next month, she and nearly all of the remaining OBC cast checks out at once).  Another sweetheart at the stage door!

Emma Hunton:  Emma is another who stepped into some tremendous shoes, assuming the role of Ilse after Lauren Pritchard departed the cast.  Still in high school, she is incredibly talented and delivers an emotional performance that demands attention.  I have a slight leaning for Lauren, who is one of my favourite cast members and always has been, but Emma is one to watch as an actor.

Stage door note:  After the final show, the cast came through and signed autographs… and even former cast members who’d simply come as audience signed and did photos as well as lyricist Steven Sater!  How awesome is that?  Lauren Pritchard and Jonathan B Wright were particularly obliging as former cast members, and John Gallagher Jr. refused to do photos ‘to speed things up and because it’s their (Lea and Jonathan’s) night’, but he did do autographs and chatted with fans for a while.  My inner fangirl had a fit, I admit it.  It’s a testament to their genuine love of what they do.

In sum:  Spring Awakening is touring.  If you love musical theatre… If Rent hit a special place in your heart…  GO.  Do not hesitate.  There’s preview videos and more at the official site below.

Spring Awakening – Official Site

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