Carnegie Mellon's Spring Awakening | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Carnegie Mellon's Spring Awakening

Spring takes considerable time not only to develop its story, but also to compose its gloomy poetry

Taylor Helmboldt (foreground) in Spring Awakening
Taylor Helmboldt (foreground) in Spring Awakening

At first, Spring Awakening looks like a silly idea: Take a 1906 German stage play about promiscuous teens, add some original pop songs, and re-dub it a "rock musical." Keep the costumes and the cringe-worthy English translation, but allow for modern lyrics, with song titles like "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked." The result should be arty and weird, like an episode of Glee produced by Werner Herzog.

Yet Spring Awakening merited its title, sweeping the Tonys in 2007. Frank Wedekind's play was revived by Steven Sater's updated libretto and Duncan Sheik's sophisticated score. As Carnegie Mellon University's latest production proves, Spring surpasses its high-concept origins. The musical is a sensitive and mature chronicle of adolescence. The anxiety of its young pupils, and the anguish of their sexuality, shows the timelessness of high school angst. Being a teen-ager, it seems, has always sucked.

In the story, young Wendla wonders where babies come from. Melchior, a rebellious student, already knows. And luckless Moritz is so distracted by this question that he can't study. This all leads to unwanted pregnancy, expulsion and two horrible deaths. The play's final act is appropriately Teutonic, a perfect storm of doom and sadness. (German dramatists generally excel at scorched-earth finales. Fair warning).

As these protagonists, Emily Koch, Taylor Jack Helmboldt and Trevor McQueen capably alternate between Kaiser-era formality and punk-rock staccato. Under the direction of Tomé Cousin, the production is often surreally slow-paced, but so is the script. Spring takes considerable time not only to develop its story, but also to compose its gloomy poetry. Pedantic as his writing is, Wedekind takes young sexuality seriously, and Sheik and Sater successfully embellish his storytelling.

What is rarely noted about Spring is its provocative costuming. Designer Mary Rene Stein clearly based her wardrobe on the Broadway original, but the choices are subtly alarming: The boys wear period-accurate brown outfits, which are genteel, yes, but also sleek and handsome. The girls wear frilly dresses that are clearly too short, like a mash-up of child's nightgown and adult lingerie. Like the oft-criticized Catholic school uniform, such fashion can seem both starchy and erotic: Their very garments betray their chastity. Their awakening is as inevitable as the season.