“We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you.” Teen angst and the dangers of denying knowledge are put on display in Wildwood Summer Theatre’s compelling production of “Spring Awakening,” now playing at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
For those unfamiliar with “Spring Awakening,” it is a modern adaptation of the 1891 German play of the same name. Duncan Sheik, most known for his pop music career in the late 90’s (“Barely Breathing” was his debut single), infused an indie rock sensibility into this story of youthful confusion and rebellion, creating an interesting parallel between these characters at the end of the 19th century with the similarly struggling youth at the end of the 20th. Though the musical did not actually come to Broadway until 2006, the connections made still stand strong.
“Spring Awakening” as a piece of art explores the dangers of ignorance and the tragedy of innocence corrupted and it is beautifully performed by the cast.
The story begins with Wendla (Leslie Schneider) alone onstage, lamenting the lack of worldly knowledge and preparation provided by her mother. The other girls in her class feel similarly unprepared and frustrated as they begin the difficult journey through puberty, as do the boys. Moritz (Ben Simon) feels especially out of control, due to vivid dreams of a sexual nature. Because of the heavy influence of the church in every aspect of society, Moritz thinks these dreams mean he is a deviant or insane. His friend Melchior (Devin Cain) tries to put him at ease, and tells him that he’s read in books that these kinds of dreams are normal and writes the knowledge in an essay. If anything, the essay only makes Moritz more anxious, adding to his worries about his poor performance in school. During an afternoon of gossip, the girls find out that Martha (Emily Gordon) is being physically and sexually abused by her father. While Wendla, Anna (Caitlin Barnes), and Thea (Gabriela Schulman) are horrified, Martha begs them not to tell anyone, as she afraid she will end up cast-out and homeless like the similarly circumstanced Ilse (Sanjana Taskar.) Wandering in the woods, Wendla runs into Malchoir and asks him to hurt her, so that she might be able to understand Martha’s pain. Things go too far and it puts them on a path that leads to heartbreak.
This was an impressive production, made even more so when you realize that the entire show is put on by youth between 14 and 25 years old. In fact, as director Itai Yasur shares in his notes, “Spring Awakening’s” original Broadway director is actually an alumnus of the Wildwood Summer Theatre program. The entire cast is quite young, which with this show is to be expected, but so is the orchestra, the crew, and the entire production staff. They handled difficult and complex subject matter with a deftness beyond their years.
The supporting cast was incredibly strong; Jordan Rodriguez, Paul Ihadji-Moudoki, Evan Neufeld, and Jay Corner all turned in solid performances, as did Schulman, Barnes, and Gordon. The harmonies they created were stunning and the simple yet powerful choreography they delivered added to the hurricane of emotions they expelled onstage. All adult roles were played by one man and one woman (Alina Gaynutdinova and Alex Palmer) who did a fantastic job of differentiating multiple roles and helping the audience navigate the changes. Schneider delivered a moving performance of tragic innocence, her sweet disposition making the journey she ultimately took that much more heartbreaking. Her voice blended perfectly with Cain’s soaring tenor, and her gentle spirit provided a counter-point of Melchior’s angry angst. Cain is able to simultaneously portray his deep frustration in the institutions that have such governance over his life and his desperate longing for connection. However, for this reviewer the two standouts were Simon and Taskar as Moritz and Ilse. Their powerful voices impressed me immensely, especially during “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” which was a standout for me. Taskar’s beautiful solo in “The Song of Purple Summer” was also incredibly moving. Simon displayed an endearing neurosis during “The B**ch of Living,” and stirred the heart during “Those You’ve Known.”
The production was also inventive and fresh, making unique choices. One of these was the use of purple paint to mark the characters who experience forbidden physical love, making them carry a physical manifestation of their change through the rest of the show. There was also an incredibly beautiful visual effect in the second act using the light from cell phones paired with electric blue light that stunned the audience (Properties Designer, Allison Griffith.) The costumes were also well done, with the colors and wardrobe reflecting the innocence of the young characters and the adults in purple, again representing maturity (Alina Gaynutdinova.) Finally, the show could not have been as successful without the amazing orchestra, led by Maddy Gershunskiy. They were at the back of the stage for the entire performance and did a stellar job with the complex music of the show.
“Spring Awakening” as a piece of art explores the dangers of ignorance and the tragedy of innocence corrupted and it is beautifully performed by the cast. I highly recommend checking it out while you have the chance.
“Spring Awakening” runs for approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: “Spring Awakening” contains adult language and situations, including suicide and sexual abuse. Recommended for ages 15 and older.
“Spring Awakening” is now playing at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, through August 12th. For more information, including how to buy tickets, please click here.