Theater Review: 'Spring Awakening,' Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Spring Awakening,' Northern Stage

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Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Spring Awakening cast - COURTESY OF MARK WASHBURN
  • Courtesy Of Mark Washburn
  • Spring Awakening cast

The schoolboy knickers and doll-like dresses are from 1891. The vigorous indie rock music is from 2006. The story is timeless, repeated again and again whenever teenagers confront their first sexual urges. The musical Spring Awakening shoves modern norms against 19th-century repression to sharpen the portrayal of adolescent longing and anxiety. In the Northern Stage production, the exuberance of musical comedy prevails, though the subject matter includes dark coming-of-age stories.

Duncan Sheik's propulsive music and Steven Sater's blunt book and lyrics present growing up as teenagers feel it. An immediate critical hit, the musical won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including best musical, best book and best score.

Spring Awakening is based on a late 19th-century German play by Frank Wedekind, and the decision to keep that setting for a modern audience sets up an instructive tension between old and new. A teenager swamped with sexual desire sees only the extremes of firm prohibition or pure indulgence. The musical echoes that split by showing kids in formal collars stomping out a backbeat.

Six boys and five girls have individual struggles, told as overlapping stories. The mother of Wendla (Lily Talevski) withholds even rudimentary sex education, leaving her daughter an ignorant and innocent partner for Melchior (César Carlos Carreño), a promising student smart enough to consider every form of rebellion.

Moritz (Noah Ruebeck), a sincere but mediocre scholar, is preoccupied by sexual fantasies and can't keep up with his studies. The strict headmaster wants to winnow the class to buff the school's prestige, and Moritz looks like this semester's easy sacrifice. When Moritz's father thinks only of the damage to his own reputation, the boy sees no path forward but suicide.

The characters stagger under the weight of their own innocence, craving experience yet fearing it, too. Georg (Tony Moreno) can't make it through his piano lesson without being hijacked by erotic feelings for his teacher. Ernst (Thani Brant) and Hanschen (Derek Dubrae Jackson) explore their homosexual attraction, and Martha (Amaya Braganza) finally tells her friends what her father does to her each night.

The moral of all of the stories is that the kids can cope by trusting each other and learning they're not alone. They certainly won't receive any help from adults.

Two actors play all of the adults, with simple costume changes. These parents, teachers and other authority figures fail the kids at every turn due to their ineptitude, ignorance or cruelty. Ashton Heyl and Paul West play the roles with elegant Teutonic rigidity, applying just enough caricature to look as otherworldly as teens would see them.

Director Sarah Elizabeth Wansley stages the show playfully. Characters casually draw childish or naughty pictures in chalk on the platforms and framework of an open, multilevel set. One boy's sex fantasy is acted out with a comedically ripped bodice, suddenly an easy joke instead of a torment.

Wansley tells the story with a sure hand, clarifying the musical's multiple tales even as they're presented through ambiguous interior reflection. The characters themselves know too little about what they're feeling and why, so Wansley uses big movement and bigger lighting to express ideas.

The effect is excellent musical theater, but Wansley is ultimately telling a happier story than the characters are feeling. The audience can lean back and watch with detachment the first fumblings of sexual awareness. The darkest material is treated respectfully but briefly, as if in anticipation of a flinch. This production takes the clear-eyed vantage point of an older person looking back, rather than directly conveying the teenager's tumultuous experience of navigating the raw and unknown.

The music's irresistible rhythm is the soundtrack of defiance, and the lyrics are brutally direct. The song "Totally Fucked" hits that nail so squarely on the head that last Thursday's preview audience had to laugh and gasp at once. The song shows Melchior at his lowest point, underscored by the clever choreographic decision to launch him off a platform in a trust fall. He's fucked, all right, with nothing but youthful energy to sustain him.

The story calls for bold, thrilling staging, as in an early number introducing the six boys in a dull Latin class. They struggle along with the Aeneid, but as the recitations drone like a percussion line, Melchior pulls out an anachronistic microphone and belts out the fury his studies force him to suppress. As the others join him, all stay in tight orbits around their chairs, pounding out the beat in "The Bitch of Living."

The stories are dark, but the entire creative team works to keep the tone of this production light. Musical director Kevin A. Smith orchestrates the mournful "The Word of Your Body" with sweet violin and a bright little glockenspiel to banish some of the sorrow. Choreographer Ashleigh King gives the dancers big, synchronized gestures that are just short of boy band moves. Lighting designer Travis McHale punches out each mood, and at one point Moritz changes direction and seems to collide with light itself when a bright beam hits him.

As Melchior, Carreño has the breathless drive of a hero and the reflective ease of a romantic. Talevski plays Wendla with sweet curiosity and a dash more inner strength than the little doll her parents are trying to raise. As Moritz, Ruebeck is earnest and affecting, and he smashes through "Don't Do Sadness," an anthem of despair.

A polished five-member band is positioned onstage, wearing schoolboy neckties like the characters. The music is the centerpiece, delivered by a cast of especially accomplished singers. Aching harmonies ring with clarity, and no matter how much sorrow lies in the stories, hope and beauty chime through. The lush finale is uplifting, as if to suggest that all of the struggle will be worth it.

The stories place kids in the turbulent transition between believing what they're told and choosing for themselves. This production makes that threshold exhilarating, no matter how much terror lies underneath.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Stormin' Hormones"