The Bitch of Living

Last night I caught the opening night of the traveling version of Spring Awakening. Based on an 1896 German play about teenagers “waking up” to the changes in their bodies and their emotions, it tells the story of a group of school kids wrestling with adolescent woes, centered around lovers Malchior and Wendla (pictured above in the original Broadway production).

I’m a tough musical theatre audience member to please. What got me interested in the show was Duncan Sheik’s contribution to the music. Although he’s now considered somewhat of a one-hit wonder for his 90s radio earworm “Barely Breathing,” that first album of his was one of the major soundtracks of my life during college. (The rest of the album really transcends a lot of the pop wizardly of that particular single.)

The show is, overall, really great. The music is rocking, fun, powerful, and well-written both musically and lyrically, and the set design and lighting were unique and fascinating (audience members can sit on the sides of the stage while all the action takes place in a central area, which is so cool). The acting in this touring show was also great. The lead roles were very compellingly rendered, and the supporting players offered a good balance of archetype and individuality to be memorable and unique. The actors also interacted a lot with the on-stage band, with a few characters sitting at the piano and playing along, both diegetically and non-diegetically.

Of course, my favorite part of the show is its use of anachronism. The costumes, much of the dialogue, and the subject matter of the play are all very Victorian in nature, but the set featured bright neon lights. The actors often sang with handheld microphones, or sometimes stood behind microphones on stands like rock stars or American Idol contestants. And the content of the songs themselves, such as the loud, punk-inspired “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally “F***ed” keep the show contemporary. The overall message suggests that perhaps some Victorian values about sexuality and morality are not as outmoded as we like to think.

My only beef with the show was in the brief treatment of a very minor gay subplot. While the heterosexual characters’ loves are treated with operatic seriousness, there’s a brief sequence in which two of the schoolboys connect romantically, with one even professing he loves the other “more than I’ve ever loved anything.” And yet, the exchange is played comedically–with joy, but still for comedy. It felt a little awkward to sit side-by-side with straight people who laughed riotously at this, and I wondered if the kind of exchange is only okay if it’s comedy, or if it’s inherently funny, or if they would reject it if it were treated with the same level of seriousness as the rest of the play. Or, I’m being sensitive.

Beau and I are thinking of seeing it again, but sitting on the stage next time!

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