by John Stoltenberg
I first saw this amazing show several years ago at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway, seated on stage, alongside wooden chairs from which the robust young actors sometimes belted out songs, and being completely blown away. A paean to adolescent lust, longing, and lost innocence, Spring Awakening is wrapped in a lushly melodious rock score and told in gripping postpuberty stories that touch on coitus, masturbation, pregnancy, child abuse, botched abortion, homoeroticism, entry-level sadomasochism, suicide, and more. Based on a 1892 play of the same name (a scandal in its time) by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, it has been turned into one of the most moving and relevant American musicals of our time.
The original cast album went promptly onto my iPod, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. So of course when the new Keegan Theatre production opened, I had to see it. And boy, was I not disappointed.
The orchestra and young cast were fantastic; the musical numbers, just as thrilling as I recall from the original Broadway production. (And there are some stunning voices here, including Nora Palka as Ilsa, Alex Alferov as Ernst, and Paul Scanlan as Moritz.) But for me, the character-driven storytelling in the dramatic interludes was better than on Broadway—clearer, more precise, much more powerful. The Church Street Theater is just the right size for this show, I realized. In the Eugene O’Neill, a moderately big house, it seemed overblown, overproduced. Seated in the audience in D.C., I felt closer to the heartbreaking action than I did when I was seated on stage in New York.