Ahhhh, the burgeoning sexuality of adolescence, with all its confusion, frustration, fear and anxiety…Remember those days?
"Spring Awakening" is a musical adaptation by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater of German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 landmark drama. Developed over the past few years in workshop presentations, this strange and striking show, here produced by Me + You Productions, gets an exciting staging at Lounge Theatre, Hollywood, marked by the seamless collaboration of Director/Choreographer Travis Kendrick and an inventive design team. After other celebrated runs in Los Angeles, this transfixing resurgence of "Spring Awakening" arrives with plenty of fresh energy, hormonal heebie-jeebies and furious poignancy intact.
In the show's roughly two-and-a-half hour run time, it broaches such hot-button topics as teen sex, homosexuality, sexual abuse, abortion, rape and suicide. There's even some nudity and simulated sex that closes out the first act. As a super-charged musical in which teens in dark school uniforms and other high-collared 19th-century attire break out and unleash their inner tumult about the alienation of young adulthood in soaring rock numbers, this is a subject well-covered in the realm of emo rock. Choreographer Kendrick’s sharp staging expresses that fury in first-act number "The Bitch of Living," in which a classroom of high school-aged boys, simultaneously aroused and tormented by the nascent sexuality their adult superiors refuse to address, erupt in head-banging, jumping, and leaping from chairs.
The second-act's "Totally F*cked," featuring literally…everybody, has the cast wildly thrashing in all corners of the theater. The rock music may seem out of place, but the songs are meant to serve as characters' inner monologues expressed in the timeless soundtrack of youth rebellion.
The cast showcases some distinctly Teutonic-looking faces that seem to belong to another time, with the boys even in knee-breeches. That aspect and others fuel the sense here of a fascinating collision between the 19th and the 21st centuries. There was, of course, an unlikely congruity of rock music and middle-class teenagers in that era living in fin-de-siècle Germany.
The show has a Dead Poet’s Society feel to it, and centers on Wendla and Melchior, as kids growing up with their friends in a German backwater at the end of the 1800s, where we see Melchior (Andrew Gleckler) incensed about the shallow narrow-mindedness of school and society and expressing his intent to change things ("All That's Known").
Wendla, on the other hand, as her body gently urges her into womanhood, is a bright, curious young woman whose knowledge of how babies are created begins and ends with the stork. The other young girls in town – Martha, Thea, Anna and Ilse – also appear to be similarly naïve and are upset about the lack of the facts of life presented to them. Wendla (Asha Noel Iyer) begs her abashed mother in the show’s opening song to tell her the truth about the birds and the bees, but is met with purse-lipped obfuscation and vague stammerings about the power of “love.”
The withheld information, despite knowing her daughter is reaching puberty, will have predictable, if not compelling, consequences as trusting Wendla is courted by the more knowledgeable and certainly more rebellious Melchior. Where Wendla lives in frustrated ignorance, Melchior’s voracious reading habits have led him to a physician’s understanding of how bodies work and a boundless intellectual curiosity, culminating in a scene that was scandalous in 1891 and still remains discomfitingly ambiguous today.
The two main leads are also behind the show’s production company and originated this undertaking. Asha Noel Iyer is the founder and lead producer of Me + You Productions, and together with Andrew Gleckler, they have combined to spearhead the project. As Ms. Iyer so aptly states, “I couldn’t get over the parallels between this story and society today...it evokes all of these modern issues we still face in 2018. Both worlds beg us to ask the question: what happens when a society does not protect its youth?”
Offering a fruitful context for a tale of teen angst, the feeling of loneliness and sexual frustration are exacerbated even more when most of society simply ignores you. That's especially the case with Moritz, the troubled student terrified of shaming his strict banker father by failing at school, while simultaneously too gripped by terrifying discoveries of sexual desire to focus. Case in point, while at school, several teenage boys are studying Virgil in a Latin class. When Moritz sleepily misquotes a line, the teacher chastises him harshly. The brooding and soulful Thomas Adoue Polk is the wild rock star itching to break free from Moritz's too-tight suit, and plays a heart-wrenching exposed nerve at the center of this production.
Moritz describes a dream that has been keeping him up at night, and Melchior realizes that Moritz has been having erotic dreams which Moritz believes are signs of insanity. To comfort his panicked classmate, Melchior tells Moritz that all of the boys their age get these dreams. At that point, you can practically smell the hormones perfuming in the air as Moritz, Melchior and the other boys – Ernst (Michael Waller), Hänschen (Anthony Cloyd), Otto (L.E. Woods) and Georg (Timothy Reese) – share their own sexually frustrated thoughts and desires ("The Bitch of Living," “My Junk,” “Touch Me”).
One debacle then follows after another: Martha accidentally admits to her friends that her father abuses her physically and sexually and that her mother is either oblivious or uncaring. Wendla is suddenly experimenting with shades of grey, asking Melchior to strike her with a switch to see how it feels to be abused. But he gets carried away in the beating, taking his own frustrations out on Wendla and throwing her to the ground. In another scene, when Moritz tells his father he will not be progressing in school, his father reacts with disdain, being only concerned with how the others in town will react when they see "the man with the son who failed."
Moritz begins to have suicidal thoughts. Following that we find Wendla with Melchior in a stuffy hayloft during a storm, as Melchior expresses his vexation about being caught between childhood and adulthood ("The Mirror-Blue Night"). As they begin to kiss, both of them nervous, they continue to entangle themselves and have a moment of confused intimacy in the hayloft as the song comes to a crescendo and Act 1 concludes.
In Act 2, Moritz, having been thrown out of his home, wanders the town at dusk, carrying a pistol when he comes across Ilse, who admits her infatuation with him. He rejects her and believing that he has nowhere else to turn, Moritz shoots himself. Elsewhere that night, Hänschen meets up with his shy and delicate classmate Ernst and Hänschen shares his pragmatic outlook on life. He is amazed with how Ernst has remained so innocent despite the horrible things happening around them. They kiss and Ernst reveals that he secretly loves Hänschen. ("The Word of Your Body (Reprise)").
Finally, as Wendla finds out about her pregnancy from a doctor, she realizes that her mother lied to her about how babies are made. Wendla reluctantly surrenders a passionate note Melchior sent her after they consummated their relationship, which ultimately sends Melchior to a reform school. When Melchior finally learns about Wendla and their child, however, he escapes from the institution to find her. Meanwhile, a very terrified and clueless Wendla is taken to a back-alley abortionist by her mother which ends bad.
Unfortunately, Melchior is not aware of Wendla’s demise and a few days later sends a message to Ilse, asking her to have Wendla meet him at the cemetery at midnight. Looking around, Melchior sees a fresh grave he had not noticed before. He reads the name on the stone–Wendla's–and realizes that she died from a botched abortion. Overwhelmed by shock and grief, he takes out a razor to kill himself, but Moritz's and Wendla's spirits rise from their graves to offer him strength. They persuade him to journey on, and he resolves to live on and carry their memories with him forever ("Those You've Known").
The show's perfectly cast group of young performers causes the production to eclipse any flaws in the material. Gleckler is pensive, headstrong and radical as Melchior, and his fresh pop voice effortlessly carries several of the main numbers, such as “All That’s Known,” and “Left Behind.” Polk is a simmering ball of pent-up exasperation in his portrayal of the deeply troubled Moritz, and presents an amazing “And Then There Were None.” And Ms. Iyer brings wide-eyed naivete to Wendla, who is clumsily navigating her sexuality with “Mama Who Bore Me.” Every cast member is featured at some point in the show: Emma Lou Delaney as Ilse, who ran away from home to live in an artist colony, has a number of stand-out vocal moments during duets with Moritz in a repeat of “Don’t Do Sadness,” as well as Laila Drew, who plays Martha, in “The Dark I Know Well.” Ms. Delaney also radiates in the solo “Blue Wind.”
Timothy Reese as Georg, lusting after his older, busty piano teacher (Ms. Robinson), added some perfectly crafted piano nerd humor. Juj Seeley’s Thea, Wendla's best friend, also has a crush on Melchior and is prominent in many of the group songs. Innocent Anna (Abigail Thomas), Martha’s best friend, showed strong support in “Touch Me,” “I Believe,” and “The Guilty Ones.”
The “adults” (Jack Stuart and Kris Robinson) handle their many tasks adeptly, segueing from one knock-out cross cutting scene to another, and heightening the emotional shading of their very different characters.
This musical benefits immeasurably with an inspired stroke from the creatives’ imaginative, highly theatrical use of design. The angular black boards that make up David Goldstein’s jungle-gym like set cut the field of vision into small irregular shapes and squares that were easily snapped off and repositioned as the scene required. As the ensemble — outfitted in costumer Sera Bourgeou’s astutely unfussy period garb — drift in and out of these areas, the connection between past and present is further cemented.
An array of large white signs of different sizes and shapes were subtly attached to the setting, imploring action and support to various causes, mostly reflective from current news, such as Planned Parenthood, Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights, Immigration, etc. The theme and mission of the production, however, primarily revolved around benefiting Everytown for Gun Safety, an incredible non-profit organization whose aim is to end gun violence and mass shootings by promoting wiser, more comprehensive gun legislation.
Ironically, a mass shooting occurred that particular day of the show in Jacksonville, Florida. Me + You Productions would like to thank you for supporting this wonderful organization, and they have made a commitment of 100% of the proceeds of each performance to be donated back to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Music tracks provided by David Carnvale of Theatre Out. Sound by Franklin Kramer. Music Director is Myrona DeLaney, who heads the Musical Theatre Department at UCI, Irvine. Stage Manager, Sam Sherry. Lighting was performed by Martha Carter and Avery Reagan with many scenes cleverly illuminated by flashlights held by cast members.
Spring Awakening continues through September 9th at Lounge Theatre in Hollywood, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday Matinees at 1pm, with an extra Matinee performed on Saturday, September 8th. For ticket information, go to www.SpringAwakeningForGunSafety.com Photography by Gigi Greene Photography
Highly, highly recommended!