Be advised: this review may contain spoilers.
Nearly ninety years after its first English production in 1917, Frank Wedekind’s oft-censored-and-banned Spring Awakening was adapted into a musical, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. That musical received eight Tony awards in 2007 and went on to be performed worldwide, even coming back to Broadway in 2015 as a bilingual production performed in American Sign Language and English. It has now found its latest home in Fort Wayne, with a production by Three Rivers Music Theatre.
Spring Awakening is certain to garner mixed reactions, and audiences should be advised that this is not typical Fort Wayne fare. Spring Awakening tells the story of a group of teens living in nineteenth century Germany and their first encounters with sexuality. Intellectual atheist Melchior acts as the protagonist, self-assured in the physical changes he’s going through. The “torturous” sex dreams of tragically studious Moritz are played for laughs early in the show. Hints about Haschen and Ernst’s relationship provide a few chuckles as well. However, it doesn’t take long for the quaintness to wear off and reveal the disastrous consequences of this ignorance and repression. The young people of this community are thrust into a world bursting with structure but short on answers, and we see very starkly where the expectations of the older generation lead them.
Thematically, Spring Awakening isn’t the most original show to hit the stage. It pits its young characters against a repressive society, arguing that sexuality is natural and that sexual expression can’t be turned off. This is exemplified most obviously in Wendla, played by Dana Bixler. Wendla finds out at the beginning of the show that her sister has given birth for a second time. Already having started her period herself, Wendla still doesn’t know where babies come from, and her mother is hesitant to tell her. As the show goes on, however, Wendla comes into her sexuality, though we can see she doesn’t understand it. In contrast, Melchior, played by Jayden Cano, is self-assured and confident in his sexual development, and this is where the story feels too simple for me. Wendla’s character arc is complex. She has found her sensuality but is still at its mercy. She changes incredibly rapidly, but remains essentially childlike. I was uncertain, however, what changes Melchior goes through, if any. It’s not much of a leap to identify with him as the voice of reason, and I would have liked to see that, if his beliefs don’t change, then at least he’s somewhat worn down by what they cost.
But, never fear, dear reader. Even if the themes of the show aren’t new, the execution feels fresh. It would be easy for a show that deals so frankly with sexual assault, domestic abuse, rape, and abortion to quickly slide into cliche territory, but the young cast remain committed to their characters through adult situations—nothing illegal, I assure you—with seriousness and humor in turn. If you’ll pardon my French, I never felt like I was watching a bunch of amateurs masturbate on stage (I mean, except for that one song—wink wink). When tense moments happen in the show, the audience is uncomfortable because the moment is genuinely uncomfortable. And when the characters were in rapture (the song “My Junk” for example), I could feel it too. The tension is offset by the beauty of the music, and the dissonance created by the two artfully sends the audience back to the first days of adolescences: our own first crushes, our own insecurities.
The venue itself adds to the freshness. The play is being performed at Wunderkammer Company on Fairfield Avenue, an art gallery and community organizing space. The painted brick walls, metal beams along the ceiling, and even other audience members are visible throughout the show; no attempt is made to cover them up. What we’re left with is a show composed primarily of actors’ bodies and voices. The staging is minimal; set changes are accomplished by moving chairs and shifting lights. There are very few costume changes, and only two actors portray all of the adult characters in the play. When not in scenes, the cast sits at the back of the stage, watching the action.
Vocally, the cast is strongest when singing together, though sometimes individual actors’ solos and spoken lines were difficult to hear. Some of you will recall that Wunderkammer Company is the renovated incarnation of the old Casa D’Angelo restaurant, and its acoustics don’t serve musicals. In that same vein, the unique staging comes with its set of limitations; audience members sitting on either side of the thrust stage may not be able to see a some moments of the play because of the placement of actors’ bodies. Audience members previously unfamiliar with this show may miss some points the story to volume and visibility issues, and that’s a shame. This show is so full of poignant moments that it’s a tragedy to imagine any of them being lost, especially to basic issues of sound and sight lines.
I would list my favorite ensemble numbers, but it’s easier just to write ‘all of them.’ Even with its imperfections, Spring Awakening is gorgeous in its minimalism. I have two recommendations: please buy your ticket, and please buy it as soon as possible. And, if you’re concerned about moments you might miss to volume and staging, get there early enough to sit front and center.
Please note: triggers abound in this musical.
Spring Awakening runs one more weekend. See threeriversmusictheatre.com for more information.