The original Broadway production of the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" was suffused with a metadramatic, schoolhouse sensibility: an audience seated on the stage; a listing of the haunting Duncan Sheik musical numbers on the chalkboard; a deliberate mixing of contemporary theatergoer and sexually confused, 19th-century teenager; an embrace of anachronism in Steven Sater's brilliantly quirky book, but also a set of very clear and prominent rules.
At the top of director Jonathan Berry's new Chicago production for the Griffin Theatre — one of the very first all-new stagings of this brilliantly conceived 2006 musical since Michael Mayer's formidable Broadway original — Aja Wiltshire's Wendla walks out on stage alone to sing her first number: "Mama Who Bore Me," a haunting composition that sets up a cautionary tale about what happened, what can still happen, when fear-driven parents and teachers fail the blooming youngsters in their charge.
Great, I thought. The studio at Theater Wit is hosting a simpler, more intimate, Chicago-style "Spring Awakening" that will dispense with the elaborate milieu and allow us to delve more closely and deeply into wounded young hearts.
The production works when the show plays out that way. Which is some of the time. There is some outstanding young talent in Berry's deeply committed ensemble — especially in such smaller roles as Enrst (played, beautifully by Adam Molloy) and Otto (the moving Matt Babbs). The adult roles — authoritarian teachers, confused and heartbroken parents — are played with searing honesty by Vanessa Greenway and Larry Baldacci, fleshing out these characters far more than was originally the case. And, in the central role of Melchior, the very promising young actor Josh Salt offers a smart, spirited, no-nonsense and entirely alive performance that provides much of the freshness in Berry's take, arranged around scaffolding, chains, platforms and a long, central runway. The design, from Marianna Csaszar, is an intriguing piece of work, emblematic of the coldness of the historic setting of the piece and the vibrancy of the kids who desire so desperately to feel free. And despite the small theater, this still feels like quite a spectacle.
But it's clear right from the start that Wiltshire is missing the key ingredient — vulnerability — of the impotent and terminally naive young woman whose sexual curiosity and ignorance, at once ordinary and apocalyptic, are at the heart of this show.
In this piece, Wendla is the victim of a cautionary tale. Yet Wiltshire varies between inscrutable and, it sometimes feels, vaguely annoyed. The necessary sense of erotic longing is not palpable, nor is the beating heart of childhood. It's not easy to play a character with so little power and such low status; Wiltshire will have to work on that. On opening night, though, Salt and Wiltshire felt like solo operators who weren't bonded by mutual fear or desire and that, alas, opened a big wound in the heart of this show, which needs a much more powerful sexual pulse.
You also don't feel as you should for Matthew Fletcher's jumpy, ill-focused Moritz, a performance rooted in admirably intense feeling, certainly, but not in a trajectory you can actually believe. And thus his character's ultimate fate — a key moment in the show — has only minimal emotional impact. The production, in fact, has a general tendency to get lost in attitude (always a danger with this piece), and dash right past the moments when things really change.
Any show where two of the three leads are struggling has its problems, of course. But if you have always wanted to see this piece, you should know that Sheik's score is beautifully played by Allison Kane and her zesty band and, also, that Berry's staging is, intermittently, quite potent. And while I found Nicole Pelligrino's choreography too derivative of the original to really contribute to the notion that something new was being attempted here, there are some successful group numbers, especially in the stronger second act. Again and again — both in terms of the acting and the singing — it's the ensemble work that saves these kids.
When: Through Jan. 8
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $28-$38 at 773-975-8150 or griffintheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye