The musical version of "Spring Awakening," based on the original play by Frank Wedekind, opens full of hope and promise. The lead characters are teens on the verge of adulthood and we experience the world through their perspective; learning, as they do, that the bright future they've been longing for may not be as rosy as they envisioned.
The original play, written in Germany and first performed in 1906, reflects, and criticizes, the conservative social norms and societal expectations of the era. Wendla Bergmen (Katie Greenburg) and Melchior Gabor (Connor Duermit) are members of a close-knit community. They have known each other their entire lives, though they don't spend much time together anymore as they attend gender segregated schools.
The story revolves around the two, showing their reactions to the changes and uncertainty they're experiencing, as well as their growing attraction to each other.
Greenberg and Duermit fully embrace their characters, even as they deal with a number of heavy subjects including child abuse, teen suicide, and a lack of sexual education, either formal or parental. The pair have strong voices, as does the entire cast, and they complement each other well. Their duet on "The Word of Your Body" is sweetly poignant, starting with a shy hesitation and ending in the certainty of both love and pain.
Ensemble members Liza Seiden, Adam Cohen, and Ariel Saul were particularly effective in supporting roles as teenagers living with secrets and the burden of expectations. Additionally, Anna Richards and Charles Morris were solidly convincing in the difficult task of portraying multiple adult roles.
The book and lyrics by Washington University graduate Steven Sater, with music by Duncan Sheik, have a strong pop / rock sensibility that's instantly engaging. The lyrics are written in the contemporary vernacular, an oddly effective counterpoint to the classical German influence of the original play. This juxtaposition also serves to underscore the universality of the social themes and, frankly, the awkwardness and confusion that accompanies "coming of age" in any era.
I was quite taken by the depth of emotion and insight the songs provided. Seiden and Saul moved me to tears in "The Dark I know Well," a powerful reminder of the damage and reality of abuse. And all the songs, from the dreamy "Blue writing essay Wind," to the sorrowful "Those You've Known" to the rebellious anthem of "Totally Fucked," provide emotional context that amplifies the script.
The show also has some nice comedic moments sprinkled here and there; and director Andrea Urice pauses the action just long enough to allow these moments to genuinely ease the building tension. The use of a simple stage and minimal props keeps the focus on the characters, and the actors and musicians turn in honest, heartfelt performances filled with pain, confusion and, ultimately, hope.
The subject of growing up is perfectly suited for college performers and the cast easily taps into the sensibility of the show. The relative youth of the actors serves to enhance their connection to the dialogue, resulting in strong, deeply personal, and visibly affected performances that resonate with the material. Washington University's "Spring Awakening" is a beautifully produced and acted piece, filled with youthful exuberance and cold truths that linger well after the final song.
"Spring Awakening" runs through November 3, 2013 at the Edison Theater on the Washington University campus. In addition, the Performing Arts Department will host a talk and reception with Steven Sater at noon on November 1, 2013.