'Spring'ing without Singing

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

During his life and in the time since his death 90 years ago, Franz Wedekind was widely known in the German-speaking world. Both famous—and infamous—for his plays, his acting, plus his songs and light verse, Wedekind was actually conceived in here in America. His parents met and lived in San Francisco, but moved to Germany just before he was born.

spring6.jpgWedekind never traveled to the U.S. and his work, which tended to be too satirical, too sexual, or simply too German for American audiences, was slow to travel here as well. His first play has gone by many names here in the states. In 1910, when his story of sexually repressed teenagers first appeared in America (20 years after it was written), it was published as The Awakening of Spring. Later it came to be called Spring Awakening, and recently it's become Spring Awakening: A New Musical. This Broadway adaptation, which won handfuls of Tony Awards and features songs by Duncan Sheik, is faithful enough to the basic structure and angst of the characters in Wedekind's play—but somewhere amidst the indie rock ballads and expletive-filled rants, this musical version loses something in translation. The Touring production of Spring Awakening: The Musical comes to the Ahmanson this fall; but for those who wish to experience the real thing, a small theater in Santa Monica is reviving Wedekind's original play.

spring4.jpgThis production, courtesy of the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, is called Spring's Awakening because the man who led the new translation, Evan Drane, believes a possessive Spring is more faithful to Wedekind's original German title. Fine, but then Drane stretches the translation into an "adaptation" that is credited to the whole company. As is often the case with these by-committee versions, the language becomes more colloquial at the expense of precision. The emotions are still real, but the poetry of Wedekind's 19th century phrasing has been smoothed over. The cast's talent lies not in classic diction, so this adaptation does play to the actors' strengths. They don't struggle with their lines, but too often they give the scenes the generic sound of a short-lived WB show.

spring5.jpg One actress does stand out, Jen Bailey, who plays Ilsa—the bad girl who runs away from home to enjoy carnival and work as an artist's model (the 19th century equivalent of going to Mardi Gras and following a rock band). Bailey finds the right mix of naive directness and experienced charm, and her two scenes with the suicidal Moritz have a genuine frission. It doesn't hurt that Bailey performs the first of her scenes—where she speaks of her childhood ballet training—on Pointe, which adds not only verisimilitude, but a bravura theatricality as well.

spring1.jpgNick McDow is fine as the morbid Moritz, especially as the ghostly, post-suicide incarnation of the character. Eleanor Van Hest and Luke Bailey are sincere and pleasant to look at as Wendla and Melchior, the lead couple; but their chemistry is lacking, as is that of the two boys who are openly homosexual—a subplot which helped close down the American premiere on grounds of indecency after only one performance back in 1917.

spring2.jpg Much has changed in America in the 91 years since then, and because of our more open views on sex, Spring Awakening (or whatever you wish to call it) lacks the inherent ability to shock. Drane's production is striking, with its all-black background and bright red roots hovering above the stage (some of the Goth-inspired costumes are another matter), but rarely does the staging or acting dig deep enough to really construct an old world hothouse of morality, sex and romanticism. The director and the Los Angeles Theater Ensemble do a capable job of allowing us to appreciate Wedekind's intentions, even as the production never allows us to breathe in the scent of the play's wild and original bloom.

Spring's Awakening runs at the Powerhouse Theatre through July 26.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Albert Meijer