By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
In two days, Philly opened two musicals about angsty, horny teenagers of yore, but there’s a world of difference between them. Walnut Street Theatre presents an upbeat Grease, but Theatre Horizon gets a lot closer to the blackboard jungle with Spring Awakening. Here, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s celebrated adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s oft-banned 1891 drama becomes an intimate hothouse for the blossoming of young lust.
The genius of Spring Awakening lies in its blend of teens in Victorian suits and dresses who furtively slip microphones from their pockets and belt out that which will not be repressed, not now, not back then. With chest-tighteningly painful lyrics sung through brash rock and mournful ballads, brilliant Melchior, naive Vendla, underachieving Moritz, cunning Hanschen, wayward Ilse, and the rest, slip from the grasp of adults who would see them in lockstep. And, as occasionally happens to rebellious kids (i.e., all kids), some end up dead. The price of freedom can be steep.
Director Matthew Decker softens some of the show’s edges, and in this small house, it works; Ben Michael’s Melchior seems gentler, more lost than in other productions, the cast sadder and quieter. Mary Tuomanen, understated and fantastic as Ilse, is just hardened and jaded enough to offer a glimpse of what’s ahead for them all. Maura Roche’s set reflects this earthbound interpretation, without Broadway’s rising platform, instead using wooden floorboards, barn-style rafters and a long chalkboard featuring illustrations of oak trees blowing in some ill wind.
Jenn Rose nods at Bill T. Jones’ idiosyncratic original choreography in the show’s earlier songs, as Grace Tarves’ Vendla, in “Mama Who Bore Me,” glides her hands over her limbs and Michael, in “All That’s Known,” jerks his body as if they’ve both just discovered a new current running through their veins, which, in a sense, they have. But Rose’s own choreography soon gives way to more naturalistic movement, and again, in these close quarters, it’s the right decision.
The ensemble isn’t perfect, but even though Corey Regensberg’s Moritz tends to rush his lyrics, and occasionally the cast gets ahead of its music, they also convey the sweetness and pains of discovery, earnestly echoing that oldest tale about trading innocence for knowledge.