If you’re anything like me, when you watched the Broadway cast of Spring Awakening perform during the 2007 Tony Awards, you vowed to see it live the first chance you got. We in Champaign-Urbana had that chance in 2010 through the Broadway Series, and we currently have it again at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Spring Awakening is the Department of Theatre’s final performance for this year, and it’s a perfect way to end another stellar season.
Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, The Awakening of Spring: A Children’s Tragedy, is a harsh criticism of the Victorian society in which he was raised. But it is also a warning. He shines a bright light on the sexual repression that young adults were being raised under, and illustrates the brutal and tragic outcomes that can result from keeping our youth in the dark about the changes and emotions that puberty, sexuality, and desire bring to us.
Steven Sater (Book, Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik’s (Score) 2006 rock musical, Spring Awakening, is adapted from Wedekind’s play. Though not as contentious as the German play (which was banned for fifteen years, and was still being staged in censored form as late as the 1960s), Sater and Sheik’s musical was not without controversy. Indeed, it “rattled the traditional musical theatre world,” due to not just its subject matter, but also its coarse, modern language, sensual choreography, and use of non-traditional soliloquys and asides that, rather than drive the plot forward or provide “emotional resolution,” break the fourth wall and sing directly to the audience, similar to Rock of Ages (Hoskins and Kim, "Dramaturgs’ note"). But the unconventional formula worked. Spring Awakening was a huge hit, sweeping the Tonys, winning eight awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score. And it is still being performed today all over the world.
Mamma who bore me
Mamma who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so bad
Mamma, the weeping
Mamma, the Angels
No sleep in Heaven
(Wendla, “Mama Who Bore Me”)
The story revolves about three adolescents — Wendla, Melchior, and Moritz — though other “children” also have important stories to tell as well. Wendla is (according to Wedekind’s play) fourteen years old and asking questions that make her mother very uncomfortable. Wendla (Jaclyn Hergott) wants to understand the changes in her body and the feelings they bring, and she especially wants to know where babies come from. Her mother tells her “the stork” brings them, but Wendla isn’t that credulous. So her mother offers the vague “when the husband and wife love each other” lie, and that lie comes back to haunt them both.
Jaclyn Hergott and David Kaplinsky
There's a moment you know
Not an inch more room
No more moves, oh, yeah
The dead end zone
Man, you just can't call
Your soul your own
But the thing that makes you really jump
Is that the weirdest shit is still to come
You can ask yourself, "Hey what have I done?"
You're just a fly, the little guys, they kill for fun
Man, you're fucked if you just freeze up
Can't do that thing, that keepin' still
But you're fucked if you speak your mind
And you know, uh huh, you will
(Melchior, “Totally Fucked”)
Melchior (David Kaplinsky) is rebellious, intelligent, and an atheist. And he’s more mature than the other students in his grade. Melchior has no fear of going against convention, and when he wants answers, he doesn’t wait for adults to provide them. He finds them for himself in books. And when he wants Wendla, he doesn’t wait for adults’ permission to go after her either.
'Cuz you know
I don’t do sadness
Not even a little bit
Just don’t need it in my life
Don’t want any part of it
I don’t do sadness
Hey, I’ve done my time
Lookin’ back on it all, man, it blows my mind
I don’t do sadness
So been there
Don’t do sadness
Just don’t care
(Moritz, “Don’t Do Sadness”)
Moritz (Joe Boersma) is Melchior’s best friend. He’s tormented by the erotic dreams he’s having at night, and is having trouble sleeping at all. He doesn’t understand the dreams, and they both distress and excite him to such distraction that he’s doing poorly in school, which makes him extremely unpopular with this teachers. He confides his dreams to Melchior, who explains everything to him, but by then the damage has already been done.
There's a part I can't tell
About the dark I know well
You say, "Time for bed now, child"
Mom just smiles that smile
Just like she never saw me
Just like she never saw me
(Martha and Ilse, “The Dark I Know Well”)
There are other students who also have interesting stories to tell:
- Martha, who is being physically and sexually abused by her father
- Ilse, also an abused girl, who’s run away and now depends on grown men to feed and “care” for her
- Georg and Otto, who lust after their piano teacher and mother, respectively
- Hänschen and Ernst, boys who are attracted to each other
The entire play is one, long plea for honesty, empathy, and education by the youth to the adults in their lives. And in the end, they get none of these. When they turn to their parents for answers, help, or safety, they are failed by them time and again. The strict, indifferent teachers overwork them on the classics, while teaching them nothing about anything else, even compassion. When the inevitable fallout occurs, these kids have no adults to help them, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences of their parents’ and teachers’ betrayal.
Spring Awakening’s story will resonate with some, and perhaps be hard for others to relate to. This will depend on how and when we were raised and our ability (or willingness) to empathize with a time and culture that, for most of us, is long past or even completely foreign. It’s hard to imagine that a story from Victorian-era Germany can still have relevance for us, but I see disturbing parallels between the repression and prudishness of the adults in this play and today's many advocates of abstinence education and “purity rings,” both in and out of our current government. This denial of facts, this desire to protect our youth from reality, from themselves, is futile at best and dangerous at worst. And yet, so often, those in charge try to do it.
Indeed, even Sater made the disappointing decision to clean up the date-rape scene between Wendla and Melchior, and rewrite it as consensual (why? to make Melchior more likable?). Thus, though the consequences and Wendla’s fate remain, the integrity of Wedekind’s intent and message is compromised. This is my one reproach of an otherwise brilliant musical. But, hey, if Sater hadn't changed the plot, we wouldn’t have the exquisite “Whispering,” now would we?
Spring Awakening National Tour. Christy Altomare as Wendla.
The opening night performance at the Krannert Center was energetic, emotional, and ultimately extremely enjoyable. This is tough subject matter, and I can’t imagine that the score is easy to sing, but the cast attack it and pull it off very well. Additionally, the live music sounds fantastic, and brings depth and richness to the songs.
Director Austin Regan has a strong cast and uses them wisely. The standouts for me are David Kaplinsky (Melchior) and Lucy Chmielewski, who plays every adult woman in the show. Part of why these two perform so well is because they’re teamed with really good co-stars. Chmielewski and Adam Thatcher (Adult men) bring some much-needed humor to an otherwise, wretchedly sad story, and they play off each other wonderfully.
Kaplinsky improves as an actor with each play he’s in, and I was very glad to see him in a lead role. He plays Melchior as if he’s on the verge of exploding (in fact, he is), and his scene with Hergott, in which they sublimate their sexual frustration with pain, could be a disaster in the hands of less-capable actors, but they generate only sympathy and sadness, instead of derision, or worse, laughter.
As a whole, the best singing occurs when the entire cast performs together. The women harmonize beautifully, and the men are impressively tight during their sessions. Standouts: When Zachary Moyer (Georg) and Sara Costello (Martha, pictured right) performed their solos, I found myself wondering why the cast’s best singers aren’t playing the leads. And this is not a shot at Hergott or Kaplinsky, who are excellent (and sing beautifully in “Mama Who Bore Me” and “The Mirror-Blue Night,” respectively). But Moyer and Costello have damned magnificent voices, and I hope to see and hear more of them in the future.
I need to give special mention here to the choreography (and a shout out to Philip Johnston, the choreographer), because that’s what impressed me the most. When I used the word “energetic,” I meant it literally. This is where the entire cast shines. Throughout the play, these actors are jumping, dancing, climbing stairs (not walking stairs, climbing), and at one point doing backflips, all while singing to the music. And, as far as I could tell, they never missed a word. Extremely, extremely impressive.
Spring Awakening is a visual and aural treat for the eyes and ears. The set design, the visual arts, the costumes, and the live band all come together, and they not only look and sound great, but they help tell the story (the stained glass of Madonna and Child during the opening act: what a fantastic idea).
I can’t close this review without mentioning some opening night issues, however. There were some sound problems with the handheld microphones during the songs. Often, as one performer ended his verse, and another began, it would take a few words before the mic would turn on. This didn’t happen a few times, but five or six — often enough to be distracting. I doubt very seriously that this problem will continue (opening night, remember). But it’s worth mentioning.
The Department of Theatre chose to end its season with an ambitious, difficult production of a world-renown musical whose subject is important and, sadly, still relevant. Good for them. I enjoyed Spring Awakening quite a bit, and recommend it without hesitation.
Spring Awakening is playing this Thursday–Saturday, April 18–20, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, April 21, 3:00 p.m. Information.
All photos by Wes Pundt.