8/19/2023 SPRING AWAKENING Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series
(Sloth/Self-Plagiarism Alert: Much of this is rewritten from my review of Actor’s Express’s 2011 production and OnStage Atlanta’s 2019 production. No excuses, but my “background” comments remain stubbornly valid. And, for the record, the play itself remains stubbornly relevant.)
When I first saw Spring Awakening at Actor’s Express way back in 2011 (has it really been that long?), I was fully expecting to dislike it. After all, I’d found the cast recording less than compelling, the original 1896 Frank Wedekind play a bit of a frustrating slog of a read, and the combination of modern rock music and period characters a disharmonious discontinuity. But, in the interim, we’ve had Hamilton and an explosion of musicals that found a natural marriage between period subject and contemporary style. This is my third visit to this piece, and, as before, I found this video stream version compelling, moving, and exceptionally well-performed.
So, we’re in late 19th-century Germany. Students at an all-boys Academy and the girls they grew up with are entering adolescence, that confusing time of life when puberty raises its ugly head (so to speak) and hormones trump maturity. The older generation is happily stuck in a hidebound rut of authority and Victorian contempt for anything that smacks of the sensual. So, the kids are between a rock and a hard place (so to speak) – their bodies are sending them urgent demands that MUST BE MET NOW !!!!, but their parents and teachers categorically refuse to discuss these demands. So, we’re left with dreams that aren’t explained, desires with sudden and hidden consequences, harsh judgments
harsh judgments, and cold lovelessness. In other words, the young characters are “Totally F$%^ked” (in the words of one of the show’s best numbers) with tragic results.
Melchior (Leo Thomasian) is the smart kid, the leader, the one to whom everyone goes for advice, the “Great Hope” of his school and his family. Wendla (Megan Zhang) is an innocent waif whose mother refuses to tell how she becomes an aunt. Melchior and Wendla “discover” each other (though they have known each other their entire lives). Moritz (Jordan Patrick) is a slower student, awkward and shy, who doesn’t understand these “sticky dreams” that keep him awake at night and leaves him narcoleptic in class. His father cares less about failure than how the neighbors will judge that failure. Martha (Destiny Danielle Freeman) is abused by her father, Ilse (Kendra Johnson) has been ousted by her family, Ernst (Zoltan Berencsi) has a crush on Hanschen (Craig Belwood), who is only too happy to act upon that knowledge. The other kids (played by Samantha Clifford, Brandy Bell, Sully Brown, and Chase Sumner) all have their distinctly characteristic aspect-of-adolescence to explore, all contribute threads to the tapestry being constructed by the play.
These teenage characters run the full spectrum from total innocence to active seducer, from languescent torpor (“I just want to feel something!”) to spastic foot-stomping passion (“I want to feel something NOW!”). From the vantage point of my golden years, I find it painfully familiar to watch them wander into the traps I fell into myself, become overwhelmed by “the little things,” experimenting (sometimes successfully) with total self-destruction. I shuddered at Hanschen’s calculated seduction of the innocent Ernst, and at Melchior’s more sincere seduction of Wendla. I heard my own teachers’ voices in the thoughtless pontifications of the “adults” (all men played by Michael Joshua Williams, all women by Christy Baggett, all characters intentionally dressed similarly and interchangeable). More urgently I hear the voices of contemporary legislators and pundits substituting their own prejudices for doctors’ recommendations, psychologists’ research, and educators’ curricula.
The kids are like mice caught in a carefully constructed “Rubik’s Cube” trap, inevitable to enter, impossible to escape. They strive to bridge the past and the present, while the adults mire themselves in the past. It is this dynamic that makes this piece so compelling, so moving, so resonant.
As before, the modern elements work. The kids are all costumed in semi-period clothes that include subtle modern touches (designed by Cole Spivia) and they have distinctly modern hair and vocal styles. The set is the Anderson’s traditional playing space backed by orchestra and cyc, projections of chalk-line art and graffiti, often enhanced in “real time” by scenic artist Ash Bingham. Like the surrealist set at Actor’s Express, and the mood-evocative tree-centered set at OnStage Atlanta, the set’s simplicity is surprisingly effective.
And I have grown over the years to truly love (some of) these songs The opening “Mama Who Bore Me” is a plaintive “What is happening to me?” cry from Wendla, the “angry” songs (“The Bitch of Living,” “The Dark I Know Well,” “Totally F$%^ked”) have drive and passion, displaying a primal frustration. And here, the show actually ends one song early, with the (usually) climactic “Song of Purple Summer” becoming an over-end-titles hymn to growing, to loss, and to the memory of those who never make it through this “spring.” It was the most perfect ending for this show I have seen!
What really sells this play for me are how all these contradictory elements seem united, how they create their own world that is perfectly acceptable and perfectly analogous to our own. The ensemble work of the cast is astounding. And kudos to Music Director Holt McCarley and Director Ricardo Aponte (assisted by Candy McLellan) for making their various contributions seamless and whole.
So, Spring Awakening is a tremendously moving tapestry of adolescence, of the angst and anticipation that create that long and languid span between childhood and adulthood (what I describe as “adolanguescence,” because it’s such a neat-sounding word), where we fight the battles of fast-change maturity with the tools of a child (when our parents and teachers even choose to give us those tools). It is ultimately an emotionally satisfying excursion into the slings and arrows, the fatalities and survivals, the rants and whines of teenagers of every generation.
And it’s a stern reminder to our leaders that it’s pointless, perhaps even dangerous, to keep politically-sensitive knowledge from our children.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #JTASpringAwakening)