The Anti-High School Musical: It's not as graphic as advertised, but Spring Awakening manages to rock the Fab Fox

I think I might have missed something important about Spring Awakening, which is making its first (though surely not its last) visit to St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. Inspired by a German play from 1891, yet seen through the prism of the Columbine school massacre in 1999, this kinetic rock musical explores the frustrated longings of teenagers in a repressed society. Much of the show's promotion — the television commercials, print ads and photos — exudes an angry, defiant tone. Cast members who resemble young Mick Jagger clones are seen either on the verge of smashing microphones upon the ground or hurling themselves into the air as if in paroxysms of pain. Others are jabbing their fingers (presumably at us) in a most accusatory manner. "It's the bitch of living," the ads veritably howl. Even the press release warns that the show contains "graphic sexual situations...brief nudity and violence."

Thanks for the heads-up, but I missed the violence and saw nothing graphic. I did see two teenagers engage in simulated intercourse, but it was loving and sensuous. (I suppose nothing would be served by alerting viewers to "ungraphic sexual situations.") Granted, one of the key motifs here is the self-imposed shame that too many teenagers feel simply for wanting to know more about how life works, and there are references (cover your ears) to genitalia, masturbation and wet dreams. But there's not a gratuitous moment in the entire show. And watching nudity on the Fox stage is like trying to spot a deer in the forest: You know it's out there somewhere, but you're hardly close enough to really know what you're seeing.

Despite the marvelously eclectic scenic design by Christine Jones, flashily lit by Kevin Adams, what is most thrilling about Spring Awakening is heard, not seen. Themes of yearning, confusion and ultimate despair permeate the music. At its best the evening is a staged rock concert, highlighted by several achingly poignant songs by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The conceit here is that when the actors speak, they are in nineteenth-century Germany; when they sing, they are here and now. Nor do these songs advance the plot; instead they function as interior monologues. So we hear Wendla, our bewildered young heroine (Christy Altomare), singing to herself about the mystery of her own body and her mother's refusal to explain the reproductive system. Moritz (Blake Bashoff) agonizes over his inability to escape the humiliation accompanying academic failure. The rebellious Melchior (Kyle Riabko) anticipates James Dean.

Christy Altomare and Kyle Riabko embrace youth in Spring Awakening.
Paul Kolnik
Christy Altomare and Kyle Riabko embrace youth in Spring Awakening.

Details

Spring Awakening
Through February 22 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard.
Tickets are $25 to $66.
Call 314-534-1678 or visit www.fabulousfox.com.

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When the show is not singing, the book scenes are sketchy at best. All the adult roles are played by the same two adults (one male, one female), perhaps making the point that all adults can seem equally oppressive and insensitive to kids. But then it's time for more music, and the confusions of youth are rendered eloquent.

The show tries hard to be unconventional, as if its very form needs to reflect the iconoclasm of its three young protagonists. Hence, members of the audience are seated onstage — to little purpose other than to serve as props. (More dumb grownups.) The three principal actors are all fine, though there's a sense that they've been beaten into giving the exact same performances as their Broadway predecessors. Which seems ironic, considering that Spring Awakening is a celebration of rebellion and independence. But all three sing well, and they are gifted with songs that stroke the heart.

There is much to appreciate about Spring Awakening. But what I appreciated most was the clarity of the lyrics. The Fox, as we all know, can be unforgiving with song lyrics, especially when sung by ensembles. I don't think I missed a syllable of Spring Awakening. Sincere thanks to Brian Shoemaker, the production sound designer who is working the soundboard at the rear of the house. His creative contribution to the evening's success is enormous.

 
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