Broadway in Chicago's Spring Awakening is fresh, even for frequent viewers

    Cast of the Spring Awakening National Tour. Photo by Andy Snow, courtesy of the Spring Awakening National Tour Web site.

    You might not believe after seeing a musical several times that it can still seem completely fresh, but then you see Spring Awakening at the Oriental Theatre.

    Spring Awakening, which debuted on Broadway in 2006, revolves around a group of young teens “coming of age” in a world of parental-enforced oppression. But what the press releases and the Wikipedia entries fail to describe is the show’s fascinating stage presentation and how multiple viewings will make you privy to even the smallest goings-on.

    I’ve had a two-and-a-half year love affair with this show. From London to California, I’ve seen flawless performances as well as the occasional mess-up, like seeing an actor drop his microphone mid-scene and attempt to pick it up nonchalantly. Each has been interesting in its own way and, more importantly, my many ventures with this musical have made me understand the cast and its individuals in relation to their predecessors.

    When I watched the West End run in 2009, I learned there is a certain style to Melchior Gabor, the “radical” male lead of Spring Awakening, which suits the character best. At the Oriental Theatre’s current non-Equity staging in Chicago, Christopher Wood took this expectation for Melchior and ran with it, evoking emotion and tangible passion in his character. The performance conjures up not only personal memories of watching Aneurin Barnard adapt the role in the 2009 London cast, but also reminded me of endless hours scouring YouTube for Jonathan Groff’s interpretation in the original Broadway run.

    As the show is based on the relationships and sexual tensions between teenagers, Spring Awakening possesses a very strict dichotomy between males and females. In songs like “The Bitch of Living” versus “My Junk,” this is clearly stereotyped with the boys (who perform the former) singing in a very contemporary alternative rock sound in contrast with the girls’, whose latter number is one of ethereal dreaminess and sweet contemplation. This production stayed true to this contrast and the rock sound really shined above all others, making the male cast members the real stars of the show. Their voices dominated and rang out with impassioned volume, while the girls’ singing fell into the background against the loud guitars and percussion.

    The same held true for the girls’ acting. Wendla (Elizabeth Judd), the lead female character, and her friends were at times disconcertingly effervescent. Their smiles seemed almost applied with Vaseline (an old trick to keeping a smile whether you’d like to or not). The exception to this rule was Ilse (Courtney Markowitz), a brooding character with a soulful voice who can be considered Moritz’s (Coby Getzug) emotional counterpart.

    For all intents and purposes, this company really did Spring Awakening justice. Although comparisons may bring out numerous faults, as a frequent viewer and constant devotee of Spring Awakening, I can only conclude with a round of applause.

    Spring Awakening is playing at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.) until May 8. The production contains mature themes. Tickets can be purchased here.


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