Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Theatre Horizon, directed by Matthew Decker, with Mary Tuomanen

Review: Spring Awakening


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. 

Playing at: Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St. Through Sunday, June 9. Tickets: $25 to $31. Information: 610-283-2230 or


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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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