- Courtesy of Dok Wright
- Left to right: Maddy Gale, Leah Kranzer, Grace Callahan, Kristen Brown, Abra Clawson
The two most extreme responses to sex — a puritanical no and a hell-yes yes — have one thing in common: They're both as passionate as a teenager coming of age. Spring Awakening fuses rock music with Frank Wedekind's 1891 play exploring teenage sexual stirrings in a repressive German bourgeois atmosphere. Victorian prudery collides with rock-and-roll freedom in a musical that won Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical.
The University of Vermont Department of Theatre production is a tightly choreographed show with a large cast of strong singers. Director Gregory Ramos emphasizes spectacle and the sheer entertainment of musical theater. The play's themes are serious, as stories of six boys and six girls explore sexual fantasy, the line between consent and rape, masturbation, teenage suicide, masochism, sexual abuse, and homosexuality. It may be tough subject matter, but the musical is filled with exhilaration and defiance, expressing the passion of youth.
The kids experience frustration and fury, while the adults around them offer nothing better than ineffectual consolation, strict prohibitions or outright cruelty. Wendla's mother denies her even basic sex education, turning her daughter's innocence into dangerous ignorance. Moritz's father considers only his own social humiliation when his son earns a failing grade. And when Melchior writes and illustrates a sex guide, it's sufficient evidence of depravity to trigger the young man's downfall in the show's powerful number "Totally Fucked."
Sater's book and Sheik's music blend Victorian mores with contemporary attitudes, and the two extremes speak to the intensity of a teen's agony in responding to his or her first sexual urges. As a boy struggles to suppress sexual fantasies during a dreary Latin class, or a girl discovers her friend is a victim of child sexual abuse, the characters confront overwhelming new experiences. Strong emotions are emphasized still further in many numbers in which the actors use hand microphones to perform with rock-star force, and the past/present contrast plays out in the appearance of bold, modern hairstyles on boys in short pants.
The rock score is filled with melodies of yearning and rebellion marked in firm 4/4 time. Many of the songs push the young male singers into minor-key falsetto, in an echo of a teenage boy's voice change. The instrumentation keeps the period contrast going, with bass and drums laying down a propulsive beat, filled out with guitar and piano, and crowned with the formal warmth of violin, viola and cello. Music director Randal Pierce plays keyboards while conducting a polished band.
On the Royall Tyler Theatre's three-quarter-round stage, the actors move vigorously right up to the spectators, and Ramos' choreography often sets them in symmetrical formations that neatly unfold. This director likes to convey a character's commitment with motion, using a fast stride for an emotional underscore.
It's a feat to stage a show with a large cast in the round, and Ramos is skillful at driving attention into the visible center of a group without blocking the focal point. The rake of the theater's seating and student Keely Farrell's multilevel set design, including platforms within the audience area, also help.
The musical numbers cover wide psychological ground, from introspective musing to intoxicating rebelliousness. In "The Word of Your Body," Melchior and Wendla sing of their conflicted yearning for each other. They've come together to acknowledge physical longing, but Ramos places them shoulder to shoulder, making no eye contact in this dark duet.
Moritz spits out the bitter "And Then There Were None," as he sees no future for himself after failing in school. The angry drumbeat embodies adolescent rage, and the lyrics are an all-too-convincing portrait of suicidal despair. And in the lush finale "Song of the Purple Summer," the company finds hope in a number staged for maximum dazzle and uplift.
The 16-member ensemble is tightly rehearsed and delivers live-wire energy in movement and song. Four actors portray a gamut of adults, and Ramos pushes these performances a little toward caricature. The rest of the company are well-drawn teenagers, navigating the rough waters of adolescence.
Michael Lawler, as Melchior, sings with pure soulfulness; his moody, upraised eyes capture the balance of desire and anxiety that propels the character through the tumult of sexual development. With quiet hesitation, Lawler shows the character reaching for confidence.
Kristen Brown lets Wendla's childish joy dissolve into dark curiosity as she contemplates what it means to feel something so strongly that it hurts. Wendla's story is tragic, and Brown is skilled at revealing her experience, not just her victimhood.
As Moritz, Jimmy Hayden sports a big blond tumble of unruly curls over an up-to-date undercut, a look the actor channels into both bafflement and cool. His physical energy is off the charts, and he jumps with knees to chest and sings with great strength and power.
Ramos avoids the darker edges of the material, a choice that makes sense for a cast of college students. When Melchior and Wendla experiment with sado-masochism, the episode is handled so delicately it barely registers. Their first sexual encounter is consensual, with Wendla merely pausing before accepting each of Melchior's advances. Other productions give the scene ambiguity, and the musical's original off-Broadway run had a strong undertone of rape. Ramos makes the moment read as romance, a happy triumph echoed by bright lighting effects.
Spring Awakening is powerful in concept, and, if UVM's execution sanitizes a few of its darker moments, it's a choice that can make audiences comfortable, free to relish the joys of big staging, fine singing and lively music. All musicals amplify emotion through song, but feelings don't get any stronger than a teenager's, and this show delivers that vitality.