Bethesda-based Round House Theatre will be staging the groundbreaking musical Spring Awakening under the direction of Alan Paul. Previews begin January 22nd.
Set in the late 19th century Germany, the musical follows a repressed group of teenagers dealing with their emerging sexuality. With book & lyrics by Steven Sater and music by pop star Duncan Sheik, the show earned eight Tony awards following its Broadway debut in 2006.
The 13 member Round House cast consists mostly of young actors making their Round House debut with acclaimed DC actors Bobby Smith and Tonya Beckman in the adult roles.
No stranger to Round House audiences, Tonya Beckman (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Wrinkle in Time, Crime and Punishment) says of the young cast: “They are all such lovely young actors, so sweet and excited to be working on it, that’s what I enjoy the most. They are all really happy to be there. The exuberance and joy they bring to it is really lovely to be around. As we get older, we get jaded, and they are not like that at all. I love being in the room with them. They are so talented and the singing they are capable of is blowing me away.”
Beckman admits she didn’t know much about the musical version of Spring Awakening when it was on Broadway, though she was familiar with the Frank Wedekind play from 1891, which she read in graduate school.
“They were doing casting of future understudies and I was asked to be a reader for the auditions,” she says. “I heard ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ about 500 times and that was my introduction to the music. The music was interesting to me, so I downloaded it after and listened to it for a while. But that was my only association until I was asked to do this production.”
Unlike Beckman, the young actors all know this show completely. “It’s a generational thing. This play is what Rent was to people of my generation,” she says. “It is as important as Rent was to me when I was in my early 20s. That’s how they see this play. They know it well and are culturally familiar with it.”
Part of that familiarity came from the NBC’s TV show Rise from 2018, a musical drama series, set in a high school, during which characters performed music from the show. Although Rise lasted just one season, Beckman has heard the actors talking about it. “I also teach at GW so my students are about the same age as the actors in this show and they all talked about Rise a lot,” she says.
Much sought-after for tragic-comic roles, Beckman plays the five Adult Women in Spring Awakening. “I love any show where you get to play a lot of different characters and I was very interested in playing the five roles of the Adult Women. They are all very different but serving a similar purpose in the script. I thought playing five different people who, in a certain way, do the same thing dramatically would be an interesting challenge. How do you make them distinct people but still do what the play is asking them to do?”
“It could be in the way they approach their relationship with their children—they could be influenced by who the father is, maybe it’s the background in how they were raised,” Beckman says. “Two of my larger characters —Mother of Girl and Mother of Boy, one is very worried about what a girl in this society has to face and how she does or doesn’t prepare that child for the future. The other mother is really the complete opposite. She’s much more liberal so I am more affectionate and open with the kids. I consider how that lives in my body physically and try to make large but grounded choices in that way.”
Beckman hasn’t done much musical theater to date. “It’s interesting that Shakespeare and musical theater have a lot in common as Shakespeare has rhythm and musicality to it. When I am working with students who have done a lot of musical theater but are intimidated by Shakespeare, we approach it like they would music, and they realize a lot of their own strengths as performers will help them with it.”
Joining Beckman as an elder statesman among the young cast is Bobby Smith, well known for his musical roles at Signature Theatre, who plays Adult Men. “He’s wonderful. We worked together once when I was fairly new in town at Studio Theatre (The Long Christmas Ride Home in 2006) and haven’t worked together since, so it’s great to be back with him,” she says. “He’s an amazing musical theatre performer so he has a lot more in common with the kids than I do. He jokes around with them a lot, but he is very much teaching them at the same time. He’s a wonderful mentor for them and it’s a pleasure to be around him.”
Asked about the relevance of Spring Awakening today, Beckman responded: “… every teenager rebels in some way because they have to. It’s how you start making your way in this world. This play is very much about that. It uses a repressive society to tell that story, but it’s the same thing that kids in any time period or generation face—they have to take those steps out of the house and out of the nest and that doesn’t change no matter when you live. When we are teenagers, there’s this scary time and you feel like parents are not there with you to help you through that because you have to do it by yourself. It could be 1891 or 2006 or 2020, it’s the same experience.”