“Spring Awakening,” the turbulent rock-musical about teenage sexuality, is being given new life at Round House Theatre. Round House stages a surprising and skillful production of this roller-coaster of a show.
Based on the play by German author Frank Wedekind, the story takes place in late 19th century Germany, though its concerns seem universal.
Wendla (Cristina Sastre), an adolescent girl becoming a woman, starts the show in a too-short dress, at least in her mother’s opinion. She’s outgrown the dress and is growing into adulthood, though not with all the facts she’d like. Gladdened to hear the news about her sister’s delivery of a second child, she’s anxious to understand anything about the actual mechanics of reproduction. Her mother is less than thrilled to enlighten her—the humorous scene finds the matron shielding her face with an apron as she fails to find the words to talk about sex with her daughter.
This interplay establishes the direction of the musical, as the story’s young people experience awakening, unaided, and misdirected, by authority. The backdrop of Adam Rigg’s minimalist set design, a high-art depiction of the Garden of Eden, implies the Christian doctrine that transforms sex into sin. “You’re already in bloom,” her mother says to Wendla, clearly worried.
Round House stages a surprising and skillful production of this roller-coaster of a show.
Potential enlightenment is represented in the character of Melchior (Evan Daves), a young student intellectual who confesses to his friend, Moritz (Sean Watkinson), that he’s learned all about sexual intimacy through books. The characters are perfect foils; Melchior’s idealistic affability is contrasted with Moritz’s fear and confusion about what he sees as shameful carnal desires, frustrations he communicates in “The B***h of Living,” an anthem of frustration. Sarah Cubbage’s school-uniform costumes, worn throughout the show, paired with several characters’ brightly dyed hair, give the students a rebellious aspect. Colin K. Bill’s fluorescent lighting design punctuates choreography and gives the set a vibrant feeling during these rock set-pieces.
The high-energy beginning turns melancholy, as the story examines the fallout from sexual repression, including revelations of incest and abuse. As is traditional with the musical, all the adults are played by one man and woman actor (Tonya Beckman and Bobby Smith, excellent), giving a sense of the same-ness and absoluteness of adult power.
The show’s story holds in tandem the realities of miseducation and censorship, with the real excitement of sexual awakening, expressed through Steven Sater’s dreamy lyrics. Sastre and Dave’s excellent performance of “The Word of Your Body,” a delicate interlude amplified by Duncan Sheik’s harpsichord melody, shows two people on the edge of sexual discovery, or as Wendla sings, “Grasping at pearls with [her] fingertips.” Paul McGill’s expressive choreography allows the young couple to communicate what they can’t yet say to each other.
Despite the blossoming attraction, or because of it, it becomes clear that Wendla and Melchior struggle to break out of the circumscribed, and violent, gender dynamics. Though physical force is absent from the scene where they have sex, it’s underscored that Wendla’s ignorance makes her consent impossible.
The story connects sexual repression to other forms of social inequity, as Moritz becomes increasingly sidelined at school. Portrayed with a coiled, jittery energy by Sean Watkinson, Moritz attempts to confront his circumstances, only to be further shut down. Director Alan Paul’s use of a turntable onstage adds depth to Moritz’s, and other characters’, feeling of futility—they go in circles, getting nowhere. Moritz’s serious, heartfelt attempts to succeed are contrasted with his schoolmate Hänschen (a great Christian Montgomery); queer, cynical, and pragmatic, he’s willing to ask for less to get what he wants.
The finale, like the beginning, gathers the teens together to speak for themselves, in an unexpectedly hopeful ending. Though this spring story brings sadness, the story closes with the promise of summer and new beginnings.
Running Time: about 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult language, sexually explicit content, brief nudity, physical violence, and death by suicide. Sensory content includes flashing lights, theatrical haze, and gunshots.
“Spring Awakening” runs through Feb. 23, 2020, at Round House Theatre. For tickets or more information, click here.