Spring Awakening: A New Musical

The multiple Tony Award-winning musical, “Spring Awakening” is currently playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa until Sunday, November 29.

Set against the backdrop of a repressive and provincial late-19th century Germany, “Spring Awakening” tells the classic story of teenage self-discovery and budding sexuality as seen through the eyes of three teenagers. The play addresses the tumultuous world of sexual discovery, offset by the musical’s alternative rock score, done brilliantly by songwriter Duncan Sheik. Haunting and provocative, “Spring Awakening” celebrates the emotional journey from youth to adulthood with a power, poignancy and passion.

Unlike “West Side Story,” which told the story of “Romeo and Juliet” in a modern setting, “Spring Awakening” takes us back to a Puritanical German town, where the subject of sex is not spoken about, and mothers still tell their teenagers that a stork brought them a new sibling. Sex becomes the running theme throughout the musical, as there were scenes of masturbation, some partial nudity of women’s breasts and a man’s buttocks, and a song entitled “Totally Fucked” based on dropping the “F-bomb” as many times as possible. “Awakening” tackles heady issues like sex, abuse, pregnancy and suicide well, showing a dramatic view of what it’s like to be a sexually confused teenager.

The musical is based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 drama which addressed scandalous topics such as sex, violence and teenage suicide, and was never performed in theater until 1906. His work aimed at criticizing the culture of repression and denial of sexuality and shows how the confusion this causes in young minds can lead to devastating results. The musical spins a classic tale with a modern twist that tackles subjects that are as prevalent in society today as they were in 1891. The current musical still embraces these most controversial elements, and the end result is a production definitely for mature audiences.

“Spring Awakening” follows three German youths; the brilliant, rebellious Melchior (Jake Epstein), innocent and confused Wendla (Christy Altomare), and shy, manic Moritz (Taylor Trensch) as they make their way through school, trying to survive strenuous Latin recitations and strict, chastising headmasters. All the while they are faced with their burgeoning sexual development and the confusion that is a result of their society’s repressive attitudes towards sex.

As the girls of the town daydream about which of the boys they will marry, boys like Melchior look to literature for some clues into the world of sex, as they have no peers to turn to for guidance. Sexually frustrated boys masturbate to erotic postcards, while the timid Moritz suffers from nightly dreams of passion. Melchior plays the village elder to his group of tormented friends, compiling essays and illustrations to illuminate his friend Moritz about the birds and the bees; this newfound information only worsens Moritz’s dreams and leaves him even more distressed.

The girls of the town are left to their own defenses in educating themselves, as girls like Wendla turn to their mothers only to receive the stock answer that the stork brings babies. The sexual tension between these youths gradually intensifies as the plot progresses.

The chemistry between characters like Wendla and Melchior is sexually charged with brief encounters that border on sado-masochistic sex acts, but softened by the awkwardness of their teenage innocence and inexperience. As we watch these youths explore themselves and each other through song and dance, the tragic losses and experiences of the play’s characters are never lost amidst the score.

While the play takes place over 100 years ago, the themes are ones that anyone in the audience can relate. There’s not a man or woman alive who can’t confess to feeling those same conflicting feelings, or the nervousness and anticipation of those first lackluster sexual encounters.

“Spring Awakening” speaks to the teenager in all of us, the part of us that yearns for love or passion but that lacks the tact or experience to express its emotions. Through the voices of Wendla, Melchior and Moritz, all those feelings of shame, guilt, confusion and lust of youth resurface.

“Spring Awakening” lives up to all the hype and praise, with brilliant performances by its young but talented cast, and a modern-day score that fits surprisingly well with the 19th century setting and sparse stage design. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” are the most enjoyable of all, as the boys express their unending frustration with their developing and uncontrolled desires.

Epstein and Trensch bring a wonderful vitality to their characters. Epstein embodies the rebellious and conflicted nature of Melchior skillfully. Their somewhat rockstar-esque personalities make what could potentially be a stuffy and boring play into a rollicking good time, all the while still handling adult themes with tact and honesty.

The opportunity to see such an acclaimed and celebrated production in Orange County should not be missed.