Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical Spring Awakening, which opened on Broadway in 2006, was a real-life Cinderella story for its creators and young cast. Despite unconventional origins—a storyline based on an oft-banned 1891 German play about sexually repressed teenagers, combined with an eclectic folk-rock score—the sleeper hit went on to win 8 Tony Awards and launched the careers of its then-teenage cast, including Lea Michele (Glee), Jonathan Groff (Hamilton) and Skyler Astin (Pitch Perfect). The production at Round House Theatre may be poised to do the same.
Spring Awakening, despite its young cast and “rock musical” billing, is not one to be taken lightly. Set in late-19th century Germany, it tells the stories of young men and women raised by prudishness parents in a culture of strict religious chastity as they begin to experience the first stirrings (and aching, fervent lust) of their own sexuality, with equal parts horror and delight. When young Wendla (Cristina Sastre) begs her mother (Tonya Beckman) to explain her sister’s pregnancy in as much graphic detail as she is willing, Wendla’s questions are met with mortified misdirection that children are the result of “marriage and love.”
Spring Awakening closes February 23, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
And so the children, left to their own devices and human nature…. figure it out for themselves. The result is not a light-hearted coming-of-age comedy, but a darkly brooding, flagrantly-erotic and often disturbing look at how sex—enshrouded by an older generation in secrecy, misinformation and shame—can lead equally to exaltation and utter destruction. Spring Awakening, with themes of incest, rape, domestic abuse, homosexuality, suicide and abortion; graphic choreography that includes various depictions of sex and some nudity; and a great deal of explicit language is suited to a mature audience.
Tonya Beckman, who plays the adult women in Spring Awakening told DCTS: “This play is [to the young cast] what Rent was to people of my generation.”
Director Alan Paul nonetheless tackles this host of issues head-on and his young cast, who appear to range in age from their late teens and early 20’s, is more than up to the challenge. Sastre is a stand-out as Wendla, with a dynamic mixed-belt that sets her apart even in ensemble numbers, and a stunningly subtle emotional range. Evan Daves, as her love interest Melchior, beautifully balances boyish charm with the burgeoning grit and defiance of a young man finally willing to “trust his own mind,” instead of being shaped like “raw material” by his elders into whatever form they see fit.
Other standouts included Carson Collins as Georg—the bespectacled boy yearning after his buxom piano teacher—whose stunning voice I would love to hear more of, and the devilishly cunning Christian Montgomery as Hanschen, whose not-so-coy advances on his love interest Ernst (James Mernin) and sly inflections in delivering his lines draw guilty laughs from the audience. Bobby Smith (Adult Men) moves fluidly through various roles, drawing particular chuckles from the audience as the evil Headmaster Knochenbruch, in cahoots with Beckman’s Fräulein Knuppeldick.
Chani Wereley quietly captivates as Martha, who reveals the bruises and scars from her father’s frequent beatings but cannot bring herself to confess to his sexual abuse, or her mother’s quiet complicity (The Dark I Know Well).
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Despite its “rock musical” classification, Sater and Sheik’s score is disjointed, defying any particular rock genre, and often at odds with itself. Wendla’s hauntingly spare opening ballad Mama Who Bore Me, which could have been plucked from the 1970’s folk-rock score of Jesus Christ, Superstar, segues into the boys’ B*tch of Living, more aligned with the punk-rock style of the Green Day musical, American Idiot, and complete with mosh-pit styled choreography. The original Broadway cast album smooths these ragged edges by adding more bassline and synthesizer to the folk-rock songs, creating a more continuous, techno-rock sound. Round House’s production might add a little more “edge” to its accompaniment to dial up the “rock.”
Round House Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening is ultimately a thought-provoking, sensitively wrought treatment of a rite of passage we all have or will face, and draws impressive performances from a cast of young actors with long careers ahead of them.
Spring Awakening. Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Alan Paul. Featuring Tonya Beckman, Jane Bernhard, Katie Rey Bogdan, Carson Collins, Evan Daves, Michael J. Mainwaring, James Mernin, Christian Montgomery, Kalen Robinson, Cristina Sastre, Bobby Smith, Sean Watkinson and Chani Wereley. Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage. Set Designer Adam Rigg. Sound Designer Matt Nielson. Choreographer Paul McGill. Musical Director James Cunningham. Lighting Designer Colin Bills. Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant