Spring Awakening, Lyric Theatre, London
Thursday 05 February 2009
Of course if you didn't like Hair or Rent, then you won't want to be told that this is the best American protest rock musical since either of them. But you may respond to the freshness, attack and sheer lyric beauty of Spring Awakening which knocks out a great roster of indie rock songs against the essential narrative poignancy of Frank Wedekind's 1891 German Expressionist play about adolescent sexual fever and friendship.
The musical by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) started small off-Broadway and swept to glory when it moved up town and won eight Tony awards. But that's not the most remarkable thing about Michael Mayer's production, which retains the shock of the old play – there are scenes of sexual sadism, masturbation, teenage suicide and gay bonding – with a modern aesthetic of microphones, light show and body-popping.
Played in 19th-century costumes – knickerbockers and nightdresses, plaits for the girls and Prussian crew cuts for the boys – in a school gym populated by a very good rock band with classical strings, this is a post-Modern collision of styles that works brilliantly.
Kevin Adams's outstanding lighting is a constellation of bare lightbulbs, now the heavens, now the classroom (where Sater's one made-up scene achieves the impossible task of building a chorus number into a rock chant of Virgil's Aeneid in the original language), carried through to the auditorium in a riot of neon strips all round the Lyric's venerable Frank Matcham interior decoration.
For the tender scene of sexual coition between Aneurin Barnard's touching, intelligent Melchior (the star pupil who writes an essay about the origins of shame) and Charlotte Wakefield's inquisitive, sweetly expressive Wendla (who's an aunt twice over but still believes in the maternal stork service), a platform rises while the rest of the cast hold them steady with a choral credo in the divinity of carnal knowledge.
Everything that happens in the play happens in Wedekind, although we are denied the mysterious Man in the Mask at the end. Melchior celebrates his dead friends in a cloud of smoke, and you'd have to be a dedicated churl, prude or bigot not to rejoice in the final sentiments and the final anthem.
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