Having seen Spring Awakening before, back in 2008 at the Balboa Theater downtown, it doesn’t seem as fresh or startling as it was upon first exposure. But Cygnet Theatre’s new production of the musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on Frank Wedekind’s late-1890s play has lost none of its urgency. This is a spirited but dark work about both repression and oppression, a daring cautionary tale for its time. The awakening of the young to the lure of their sexuality can be an uneasy one, especially if you happen to be young and awakening in 1891. It can, the German author Wedekind wrote, end in tragedy. Sater and Sheik’s modern-day language and blistering rock score (intermingled with haunting ballads) have reminded audiences from Broadway to Old Town that if all the old morals no longer apply in and of themselves, there remain narrow minds who would enforce them to the point of pain, or worse.
Cygnet’s Sean Murray directs this production in all its vigor and sensitivity. Dave Thomas Brown (as Melchior) and Taylor Aldrich (as Wendla) portray the new lovers for whom the sweetness of discovery is destined for cruel separation and pain. Aldrich, making her Cygnet debut, is a shining, deeply sympathetic presence. Charles Evans, Jr., as tormented Moritz and Katy Tang, as Ilse (both also making their Cygnet debuts) give aching, robust performances as well. The six-piece band behind the vocals, conducted by Terry O’Donnell, provides the precise balance between muscle (as on the show standard “The Bitch of Living” and the crowd-pleasing, and crowd-shocking to some, “Totally Fucked”) and the tenderness that befits Spring Awakening’s balladry.
Spring Awakening is a frank, unfettered examination of not only sexual curiosity and emergence but child abuse, homosexuality and abortion (circa 1891). Even with Sheik’s Triple-A Radio score and Sater’s contemporary candor, those themes are just as critical.
We are today on the threshold of spring 2014, and perhaps it’s an apt time to remember that particularly when it comes to the young, discovery is such an important part of life and that intolerance in the name of protecting them from discoveries can do worse than any truths they may find.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat