Content Warning: abortion, parental abuse, sexual and physical assault, suicide
Have you ever wanted to see a rock musical that denounces abstinence-only education? Is “German dungeon porn” your favorite card in Cards Against Humanity? Are you curious about what high schools in late 19th-century Germany were like? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then “Spring Awakening,” book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, is for you!
Director Lianne Yun ’18 has successfully recreated the oppressive world of 19th-century German high schools in the Second Stage production of this 2006 Broadway hit. Wendla Bergmann (Alex O’Shea ’19) is a young teenage girl whose mother (Sophie Elwood ’20) refuses to teach her about sex. She and her equally sheltered friends struggle to understand the world around them while being raised by parents that fail to acknowledge reality, instead imparting overly strict academic and religious values that do not translate to daily life. This is exemplified in an early striking scene, where a group of young teenage boys chant Latin as Moritz Steifel (Nathan Mullen ’20) laments his lack of sexual knowledge.
All of the adult characters are cleverly portrayed by just two actors (Leo Miranda ’20 and Elwood), rendering the parents, doctors, and teachers a monotonous, imposing mass. In contrast, the individuality of the students is emphasized. Each of them faces his or her own challenge, all of which are artfully worked into a single script. Whether it’s shame, abuse, an “unacceptable” sexual orientation, suicidal thoughts, or an unintended pregnancy, the characters sing and dance their way through it.
And, aptly, both the acting and singing are simply incredible. Mullen and O’Shea are consistently excellent. “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)” is technical and beautiful, with the cast making it seem like an easy feat. Act II’s “Totally Fucked” is an energetic homage to miserable, frustrating teenage angst, enhanced by Shana Laski’s choreography. It’s difficult to transmit the anger and fear that her character experiences as a young girl who is physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by her father, but Sanam Godbole ’19’s rendition of “The Dark I Know Well” is stunning.
The nine-member band, conducted by Sam Friedman ’18, expertly plays the showtune-meets-rock soundtrack. Onstage drama speaks for itself, supported by a simple set designed by Daniel Gordon ’19. And Zack Lobel ’19’s clever lighting enhances the performance with concert-like cues that include old-fashioned lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, flickering at various times to help to contextualize the play within late 19th-century Germany.
Those familiar with the show will notice the ambiguity introduced in the rape scene at the end of the first act. Although the 2006 Off-Broadway production showed Melchior clearly raping Wendla, the Broadway production and many other recent productions have shown Wendla enthusiastically and affirmatively having sex with him. The University production introduces the question of whether Wendla is able to consent if she doesn’t even know what sex is. There is a clear power dynamic at play in that he has thorough sexual knowledge and is initiating the sexual component of their relationship. Changing Melchior’s character from a perpetrator of violent sexual assault to a coercive horny teenager renders him all the more complex and sympathetic, allowing the audience to more wholeheartedly align with the youthful characters. It’s a bold choice in a production full of bold choices.
There are certainly some bizarre moments, such as watching O’Shea get whipped with a stick by co-star Jack Gorlin ’18 or Mullen asking Gorlin to write out a sexual manual. Over the course of two and a half hours, you’ll find yourself thinking: “That’s a weird way to get into BDSM;” “I’ve never angrily head bopped to the words ‘Bla bla bla’ before;” “Wow, I didn’t know that that’s what happened at all-boys schools;” and “I’m glad that I’m not seeing this with my parents.” Throughout the production, certain compulsory values are subverted in lines like “That feels like Heaven” and “I’m gonna bruise you,” both of which are used in a sexual setting, even though they are supposed to be associated with Christianity or parents. The spectacular script, cast, band, and crew come together to create an impactful tale that rings true despite the situational factors that separate it from the modern-day United States.
Tickets sold out after only 10 minutes, but the waitlist to get in opens an hour before the start of each performance. “Spring Awakening” is playing April 13-15 at the ’92 Theater.