Spring Awakening Revue – Desire and Fear in Coming-of-Age Musical | Theater

IRupert Goold’s daring is to stage a blazing, moody alt-rock musical about repression and teenage rebellion for a Christmas spectacle. Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play – banned or censored through the ages – it doesn’t have a lot of blurry edges, and its staging now feels more refreshing.

Set in a provincial German town dominated by a dismal Lutheranism, the story revolves around adolescents confronted with sexual desire, homosexuality, rape, suicide and clandestine abortions. Their teenage angst was originally sung by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, in part sparked by the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, and became a big hit on Broadway in 2006.

This revival is marked by the abundant talent of its young cast: Laurie Kynaston, as a troubled Melchior, looks like a young Eddie Redmayne and is intense, nervous and passionate in her part. Amara Okereke, as his girlfriend Wendla, performs a skillful push-and-pull between timid apprehension and cheeky confidence. Their alchemy on stage travels the scale of awkward innocence to illicit pleasure and erotic charge.

Goold’s staging is also dynamic on Miriam Buether’s expressionist set, designed as a staircase ascending the stage; these steps go from the classroom to the cemetery and the meeting room. With lighting by Jack Knowles and light-up video design by Finn Ross, they beckon modern despite the 19th-century setting and look like high school bleachers, like the ones on the set of Jamie Lloyd’s recent Evita.

The problem, however, is the emo, rock, and pop songs with music and lyrics that sound repetitive, mundane, and ultimately soporific. They also arrive at a fairly fast pace, hampering the flow of narrative, so the first half feels episodic with songs that tend towards musical interior monologues, but conveying only a generic sense of those characters. And the musical refrain “O, I’m going to be hurt … O, I’m going to crush you” sounds rather tinny than dangerously edgy in its sadomasochism.

Spring awakening at Almeida. Photography: Marc Brenner

Visually, the use of a glass box on the front of the stage is effective, especially in its staging of a suicide. But the semicircle of glass that frames the backdrop never quite achieves its purpose beyond a smooth appearance. Sometimes the light projections seem to overload, with graffiti appearing on the steps multiple times during the song Totally Fucked, which feels like channeling a Pink Floyd vibe.

In this bygone world of draconian religiosity, teachers wear masks that effectively make them grim grotesque. Children, however, are largely dressed in contemporary clothing, which creates a deliberate inner tension: the characters controlled by repressive social and sexual codes appear to come out of a Netflix teen drama and dance in boy group formations and girls, with choreography that looks like it was taken from a reality TV contest or a high school musical.

More of an orchestration than an emotionally enveloping drama, the plot between Melchior and Wendla gains strength in the second half, and the production has some defining moments, such as Melchior’s atmospheric number The Bitch of Living, about desire and l anxiety, and a fantasy masturbation excellently performed by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as Hänschen. The performances are all stunning and the protagonists seem poised to become the stars of tomorrow.

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