SALT LAKE CITY — Frank Wedekind was a 19th-century German playwright whose seminal 1891 work Frühlings Erwachen was adapted into a modern musical called Spring Awakening by dramatist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik. The controversial work 100 years prior to the Broadway smash hit was revived to enormous success and remarkable effect; the problems facing the teenagers of 1890 are frighteningly similar to those facing our youth today, keeping the story of Spring Awakening as evocative and heartfelt as ever.
In many ways, the students in the world of Spring Awakening are startlingly similar to the impassioned activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both come from worlds where the inactive conversations of adults keep them trapped in an incomprehensible and dangerous world. In Spring Awakening, it is not unregulated guns that is the weapon but unrelated sex. Yet, both have deadly consequences. The cage of innocence surrounding young girls feeds the violence against them, where two are raped by their fathers and one dies as the result of a botched abortion when her naivete surrounding sex leads to an unwanted pregnancy.
Woven through the tragedy of the story is the bright, crackling voice of its young activists and philosophers, and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to leaders like Sophie Scholl, Emma Gonzalez, and Cameron Kasky. The wisest of society understand that one should always turn an ear to the younger generation, and that is precisely what this play intends. It is not only the children who are awoken to sexuality and brutality, but the adults who are expected to open their eyes to the truth spoken from the mouths of babes. In some of the final lyrics of the play, the character Melchior (played by Chase Palmer) weeps over the graves of his friends. Finding fresh determination and strength for his philosophy, he sings “I’ll walk now with them/ I’ll call on their names/ And I’ll see their thoughts are known/ Not gone, not gone.”
It is difficult for me to speak on all the poetry in this play, as I had an intense emotional reaction to it. The very nature of poetry is to inspire feeling, and so it will be up to each audience member to find their own meaning in the script. The production itself was also noteworthy, and I applaud director Michael Vought for his interpretation of the piece in its simple honesty and unsullied frankness. It is a joy to see a collection of young actors with focus and passion who appear to find great meaning in the work, and that is what Vought has drawn out of his cast.
Spring Awakening is an ensemble piece, and so each performance lends to the work as a whole like a collection of flying buttresses. Though there were no weak performances, there were certainly performances that stuck out to me. Palmer is a lovely and luminous actor who provides enormous strength for his cast members to feed on. I was moved by his torrid portrayal of Melchior’s mounting disillusionment, and the scene wherein he mourned over the graves of his friends was every bit as wrenching and powerful as though played by an actor twice his age. In contrast to Melchior’s slow simmer was the bright, electric unraveling of Alec Kallad’s performance as Melchior’s best friend Moritz Steifel. Kallad was immediately endearing due to his deftness in the art of comedy, his expressive face selling every inch of Moritz’s harsh and ferocious awakening to what being an adult means. Moritz is a character that is easy to like, and so it is even more shocking and disheartening when he cannot withstand the pressure laid on him by the academic world. In a scene where his friend Ilse (played by Abby Maxwell) implores him to spend some carefree, childlike time with him like the old days, I saw the disbelief in Kallad’s eyes and wanted desperately for him to accept his friend’s help. The scene hit incredibly close to home for me, and the two actors hit every single note with breathtaking beauty.
Maxwell was one of my favorites on stage. Her strength as the battered but not broken Ilse was electric, and she took on her role with obvious understanding of the importance of Ilse to the story. Ilse acts as a kind of oracle—the one child who has managed to escape the hell that was her family home. Her duet “The Dark I Know Well” with Martha (played by Ame Plummer) was one of my favorite moments in the show. On the lines of singing, all of the voices onstage were sweet and accessible, which is what this piece requires. For the heavier pop or rock songs, Vought did a fine job in casting the strongest singers. Maxwell, Kalled, and Eli Unruh (the latter as Georg) had the most vocally challenging pieces and carried them off wonderfully. I was always delighted to hear Unruh’s bright, clear, expressive voice effortlessly hitting the rock-heavy sections of tricky pieces.
Toward the end of the play, the entire ensemble stands clad in white, singing about hope for the future and unity in ideals. I was already sold on the message and in an emotional state, but then I saw honest tears in the eyes of Melissa Selguero (playing the role Thea) and . . . man, I just lost it. This is an effervescent and effective work that I highly recommend to any and all audience members.
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