Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Kennedy Center Spring Awakening

By • Jul 17th, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Spring Awakening
Kennedy Center
Kennedy Center, Washington DC
Through August 2nd
Reviewed July 14th

The scene: The shuttle bus from the Kennedy Center to the Foggy Bottom Metro station after a recent performance of the touring musical Spring Awakening.

Enter, a woman in her mid 30s, proclaiming “Fun! Fun! Fun!” Then, a woman, 78 (as she pointedly declared), comes on grumbling, “So tired. So old. Same old stuff. I guess it’s OK for people who hardly ever go to the theater. But me, I went all the way to Balmer (Baltimore) to see Little Anthony and the Imperials. Now that! That was worth seeing!”

I am seated between these two: “I found it stirring, deeply moving, troubling. Touching. Humane satire.”¬†

The “Fun! Fun!” assessment was apparently based on cute guys, singing and dancing with boy group vigor. One guy even showed his shapely butt during a scene of simulated intercourse. Never mind that just behind him and his girlfriend was a grim-faced parson denouncing the sins of the flesh. And as for the bouncy boys (and girls); they were singing about frustration, thwarted longings, depression, shame and, amazingly, hope.

What underlay the “So tired. So old.” assessment I can’t imagine. Granted, the costumes evoked the 1890s, that might be it. The repressive adults were all stern, even vicious, Victorians. And the music by Duncan Sheik and the book and lyrics by Steven Sater were inspired by an 1891 drama by the the German expressionist pioneer Frank Wedekind. All those factors might make a production seem old. But tired? No, no, no — not Spring Awakening.

As for my “stirring, deeply moving, troubling, touching, humane satire” reaction, I can tell you all about that. The show is a series of interlocking vignettes. When it came to alternating soliloquies telling of incest — one girl sexually abused by her mother, the other by her father — I found myself weeping convulsively. My wife’s turn for that sort of reaction came when the horrendous abortion incident unfolded in all its sorrowful detail.

In addition to such dark details, there are some laughs. Those come when a boy explores the messy details of masturbation. Also funny is the moment when that same boy reacts to the declaration, “I love you!” with a matter-of-fact, “That is as it should be.”

The vignettes, ranging from suicide to mystical exultation, reminded me of 19th Century drawings by Goya or Daumier: satirical, sometimes horrifying, but always with a humane purpose, a vindication of human dignity in the face of grotesque anti-human forces.

The acting — with Jake Epstein and Christy Altomare as the central protagonists in the struggle for love, understanding and freedom — is exuberant and nuanced. The choreography by Bill T. Jones and the directing by Michael Mayer are intense, establishing a rhythm of inward reflection and turmoil building to outbursts of adolescent fury and high spirits.

Whatever those of us on the Kennedy Center/Metro shuttle might make of it, the Tony Awards committee was sure enthusiastic about Spring Awakening. The show won eight 2007 Tonys.

And for those who can’t quite get their heads around a contemporary pop/rock musical based on a 118-year-old expressionist drama, well, there’s always Little Anthony and the Imperials.


  • Wendla: Christy Altomare
  • Mortiz: Blake Bashoff
  • Ilse: Steffi D
  • Melchior: Jake Epstein
  • Anna: Gabrielle Garza
  • Thea: Kimiko Glenn
  • Martha: Sarah Hunt
  • Otto: Anthony Lee Medina
  • Hanschen: Andy Mientus
  • Ernst: Ben Moss
  • Georg: Matt Shingledecker
  • Ensemble: Krystina Alabado, Julie Benko, Todd Cerveris, Chase Davidson, Kate Fuglei, Angela Reed, Perry Sherman, Claire Sparks, Henry Stram, and Lucas A. Wells
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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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