High School Heat
ALT’s lusty teen musical is uncoordinated yet awesome—kinda like your first time
By Leigh Hile
Consider yourself warned: Spring Awakening is a weird show.
Take a late-19th century German play about school children. Adapt it as a rock musical with a score by a ’90s folk-rock one-hit wonder. Mix generously with explicit themes of adolescent sexuality, and the result is going to to be highly unorthodox.
Spring Awakening explores a group of teens struggling to control and understand their stirring sexual desires amid a society squeamish about the big S word. Though the musical sets the story in 1892, the actors strut around wearing Bowie-style hairdos with their old-fashioned costumes and break anachronistically into rock concert-inspired musical numbers by Duncan Sheik (best known for his 1996 hit, “Barely Breathing”). It's a bold show, often explicit and unabashedly shocking. It’s also fresh and exciting.
This performance of Spring Awakening, playing at Albuquerque Little Theatre, rocks hard and has its own moments of inspiration. The ensemble is particularly strong, and the times when it’s given free reign of the stage are the show’s most rocking. “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” and “Totally F*cked”—all group numbers—are the liveliest parts of the production.
Outside of these apexes, however, the production trips a bit in its rock star boots. Spring Awakening centers upon three teens: Melchior, the smart yet defiant golden boy; best friend Moritz, ashamed of his newfound urges; and Wendla, Melchior’s naive-but-curious girlfriend. While the piece focuses mainly on these characters, they are representative of a universal feeling of adolescent yearning echoed by the cast.
Knowing that every teen onstage is undergoing a powerful transformation into adulthood is central to the attitude and atmosphere of the musical. But in the moments when they are not specifically in the spotlight, the characters go slack. They take up space on stage without communicating a story; their relevance to the rest of the musical is lost. In these awkward, in-between times, the production struggles. When the chorus is front-and-center, it shines.
Dennis Wees and Bryan Durden, who play Melchior and Moritz, respectively, are talented performers; they work hard and are charming and fun to watch. But ultimately they both lack the singing chops to carry such a music-heavy show. A shame, as there are several chorus members whose voices could have sustained bigger parts. It would have been especially enjoyable to see more of Michael Ireland, who often stole the show during his brief but memorable solos.
Kir Kipness is skillful in the role of Wendla. Kipness has a beautiful voice and she gives a believable and heartfelt performance. But Wendla stays sweet and demure throughout the entire play, even as she gives over to her desire for Melchior and discovers the terrible consequences of her choice. We never get to see Wendla really express her passion; her voice and demeanor convey a timid restraint that her actions contradict. The show could use a moment when Wendla really lets go and puts some power behind her performance.
In fact, lack of passion is a frequent occurrence. While many of the numbers remain technically proficient, it feels as though the performers are simply going through the motions—hitting the right steps and singing the right notes without the sense that the music is an unstoppable expression of real emotion from within.
In a story like this, which is so much about repression, the onus falls upon the actors to communicate that stifled feeling. By the very definition of repression, the real substance of the story cannot be spoken and so the yearning, confusion, shame and desire of the teens of Spring Awakening must be shown. We need to be able to see, for example, Melchior’s piercing intelligence, his questioning, rabble-rousing spirit, or the way that he touches Wendla.
It's not that these levels aren't there at all—each of the actors is charismatic and captivating—it's just that they aren’t fully there yet. The production needs a little more time to get its teeth into the meat of the story. Still, there are several delightful performances to be found already. In addition to Kipness’ accomplished Wendla and Ireland’s star turn as a chorus member, there’s also Maya Reese’s powerful rendition of a haunting song about abuse. And Scott Schuster is brilliant in his portrayal of all the male adults of the musical.
Hopefully, Spring Awakening will improve in its final weekend of runs at ALT. It has all the potential to be an exciting musical experience, and when it rocks, it really rocks.
Runs through July 29
Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
Sunday, 6 p.m.
Albuquerque Little Theatre
224 San Pasquale SW
Tickets: $24, $21 seniors, $18 students
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