IF YOU GO
What: National tour of multiple Tony Award-winning musical
Where: The Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, 8099 College Parkway SW, Fort Myers
When: Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010, through Jan. 31.
Admission: $30 through $65
Information, tickets: bbmannpah.com
First came sex, drugs and rock and roll, and it was a revolution.
Then came “Spring Awakening,” a Broadway musical based on a controversial 1891 play by German author Frank Wedekind. It dropped the drugs, but didn’t spare the sex or the rock and roll. Set in the era in which it was written, but scored with music by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and lyrics by playwright Steven Sater, “Spring Awakening” took the most painful parts of adolescence and made them sing sweetly, loudly and memorably.
It was a revolution all over again, and the show earned widespread critical acclaim. In 2007, it won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical. The national tour of “Spring Awakening” opens on Tuesday at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers. Scott Saxon, the Mann’s general manager, recognizes that the show might raise a few local eyebrows, but also appreciates its raw emotional resonance.
“The bottom line, frankly, is it’s just an excellent show,” he said. “When you strip away all the potential controversy, and you get away from all the bad words and the brief — very brief — nudity, it’s just theatre at its best.”
Very brief nudity? Yes. And that’s only the beginning.
A long history
“Spring Awakening” explores the lives of late 19th-century German youth, especially the sexually naïve and lovely Wendla, the intelligent and handsome Melchior and his best friend, the troubled Moritz. At school and at home, the young characters encounter adults who ignore, abuse or repress them, leading to many of the musical’s events.
There are scenes dealing with masturbation, incest, sexual sadism, suicide and abortion, and the original cast recording carried a parental advisory warning.
But Matt Shingledecker, who plays the part of the youth Georg and understudies Melchior, promises “Spring Awakening” is not interested in gratuitous shock value. Difficult issues are handled either with humor — as Georg, for example, he lusts for his piano teacher’s breasts, leading to comedic rock-and-roll relief — or with dignity.
The moment of a prominent character’s suicide is not shown, he said. Nor is the botched abortion that leads to another character’s death. Instead, audiences feel the aftermath of these occurrences.
“It’s more the shock value of what you know, versus what you see,” he said. “Which I think is just, if not more, powerful.”
For Shingledecker, “Spring Awakening” is a work of multiple themes, morals and meanings. There is the obvious message that ignoring an adolescent’s blossoming sexuality or demanding they conform intellectually is not a healthy approach to child-rearing, but there’s also a point to be made about the dual nature of youth.
In “Spring Awakening,” youth is beautiful and arousing, but it can also be rash and negligent, as it is in Melchior’s character, Shingledecker notes.
Melchior is the play’s “glory boy,” Shingledecker said, and with good reason: He’s the most the enlightened of all the teens, and has the most progressive parents. Throughout the musical, there are moments where it seems as though Melchior is making good and wise decisions, choices that will help him break free of his constrictive environment, yet those efforts only lead to heartache.
“He’s always looking for more,” Shingledecker said of Melchior. “That’s a little bit of his downfall.”
Melchior does not meet the same fate as some of the musical’s other characters, but is shuffled off to reform school by his frustrated parents. The production concludes with Melchior returning to visit a graveyard in his hometown. He despairs at what he finds there and considers suicide, but is counseled by the spirits of his fallen friends.
Despite all the play’s events, the musical’s finale — “The Purple Song of Summer” — is meant to restore hope and optimism. Throughout the show, the music allows the characters express what they are feeling inside, rather than furthering the plot, as is often the case in a musical, Shingledecker explains.
“If you focus on the lyrics, the idea is hope after the dark,” Shingledecker said of the last musical number. “You have to find hope after what happened. It doesn’t say forget what happened.”
Since he has been on tour with the show, Shingledecker has witnessed audience reactions around the country. Some groups react with rousing applause, while others are more thoughtful after the musical’s final song and scene.
It’s the latter response that he finds the most meaningful, he said.
“It means we’re affecting those people,” he said. “Those are the people that really need to be touched by the show.”
In June, Saxon caught the “Spring Awakening” tour in Baltimore. Knowing it would soon travel to Fort Myers, he was especially interested in audience reactions. One attendee, a man who appeared to be in his mid-50s, looked as though he was attending a rock concert, Saxon recalled. Then, there were two women who appeared to be a bit older; they watched the production quietly, not even commenting at intermission.
But afterwards, there were tears streaming down their cheeks, Saxon said.
“It’s just a powerful, emotional, honest story,” he said of the musical. “Everybody’s been there, everybody’s been a teenager, and everybody’s experienced some of that angst that they’re playing out on stage.”