Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The B**** of Living (In 19th Century Germany) - Spring Awakening @ The Ahmanson

"Well," I noted to my theatre going best friend as we settled into our balcony seats at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, "This may be the first time we're older than most of the people in here."

"It's Spring Awakening," she responded, flapping open her program and settling down. "It's the new Rent."

Fitting, I thought, as I eyed the crowd of young teens and twenty-somethings crowded together chattering excitedly in the 'cheap seats' (which for theatre, is an 20 bucks). Rent, the celebration of life and study of AIDS in the Bohemian slums of Alphabet City during the nineties, was a cultural, controversional phenomeon that lasted on Broadway for ten years. The rock musical based on the opera 'La Boheme' featured drag queens, lesbians, drug users, and the plea to ignore conventional shame and live for the moment and who you truly are.

The exploration of shame as dicated by society may be one of the few things that bridge together Rent with it's perceived successor, Spring Awakening.

With music by artist Duncan Sheik, Spring Awakening reimagines the original play of the same name with some added rock numbers, which serve to express what these sexually repressed kids stuck in the onslaught of puberty in 19th century Germany can not.

At a critical point in their lives, these adolescents struggle to come to grips with their newly discovered sexual urges. Because their world is lined with strict morality and expecation, there is no one they can turn to to understand them but each other, and the result is tragic: the blind leading the blind.

There is handsome Melchior, almost too brilliant for his own good. He has discovered the truth in books, and has developed his own ideas about sexuality, government and shame. In his teenage arrogance, he takes under his wing a far less confident lad named Moritz. Moritz, struggling to pass his classes and aware of the consequences that will befall him should he fail, unravels in the face of his increased sexual distraction.

Their old childhood friends Ilse and Wendla face extreme opposites. Sheltered Wendla is naively curious and innocent. Protected her entire life, she does not understand why she cannot wear her too-short girl dresses and begs her mother to explain to her about where children come from, but is rebuffed and therefore remains ignorant. Ilse, however, beaten and sexually abused as a child, has become a outcast.

These four characters, along with their classmates, fumble with the urges they cannot ignore but can never speak of to the adults meant to protect them and keep them from harm. Their pain and wonder is instead released through song, accompanied with angry guitar riffs or a haunting melody plucked out on a piano.

Unfortunately, the silence of the adults, and each teenager's desperation to understand and cope with their own changes fit together to create a tragic ending for the four pair of childhood friends.

Yeah. It's not the cheeriest musical you're going to find (Rent, with all the aids and the dying, still ends much more happily). Instead Spring Awakening instead seeks to transcend the time period to speak to every person who has grappled with the frightening onset of puberty and it's accompanying shame. It seeks to speak what has not dared be spoken.

It's raw and frank and seeks to prove it with bared breasts and bared butt, and a lot of cursing and rage. Because that's what it's like to be a teenager.

I was fortunate to catch a production of the smaller, less known play that preceded the musical a few months ago, and as a result, found myself torn. While Spring Awakening is powerful, I preferred the less preachy, darker quality of the stage play than the musical, awesome soundtrack not withstanding. Still, it's a musical worth seeing for the amazing performances and frank reminder that being a teenager can be a literal hell. As an adult in her late twenties, I find myself not missing it. I can barely figure myself out now, but in high school?

Forget it.

Sadly, Rent has finally closed its Broadway doors after it's long run. Shockingly, Spring Awakening is soon to follow, a victim of a slow economy and a slough of strikes that have hit Broadway. Catch it while you can.

Just don't bring your parents. Or your kids. Unless you're ready to answer every question this show asks.

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