As timely now as it was when the original play was written over 150 years ago, the edgy musical Spring Awakening is now rocking the stage at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. This eight time Tony-Award winner might seem a bit aggressive when compared to the normal fares at this venue. Known during the day as a Windy City school for the performing arts, trust me, these baby-faced performers fit right in. Based on the scandalous and subsequently banned-at-the-time 1891 German Play, Spring Awakening,by Frank Wedekind, this coming of age rock musical about the inner and outer tumult of adolescent sexuality has found quite a fan base. Now directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier, this Awakening isn’t played for its shock value, for which I am entirely grateful. With the daily bombardment of car-jackings, stabbings, robberies and assaults on the news, reported four times a day, everyday, including a days earlier red-line public transit assault on well-known local actor and personality, Will Clinger, I am happy a little restraint was shown.
In its initial 2006 incarnation on Broadway, this production raised more than a few eyebrows. Unapologetic themes of teenaged sexuality, domestic and sexualized violence, homophobia and suicide were front and center. I don’t know if it is the fact this material is now sixteen years old, or if this is the fifth incarnation of this material I have seen, or if the stick to measure the landscape of teenaged sexuality for entertainment is now the Zendaya lead HBO series Euphoria, a weekly celebration of substance-abuse and rampant teen-aged sexuality, this production felt almost chaste by comparison. What a difference a decade and a half has made on the desensitization of the audience.
It may seem odd that a musical with storylines featuring masturbation, nocturnal emissions, spanking, sex, suicide and back-alley abortions would end up being an eight time Tony Award-winner, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, as well as a Grammy Award winner, credit former pop star, Duncan Sheik, who wrote the score as his Broadway debut. Partnering with book and lyrics writer, Steven Sater, “Mama Who Bore Me”, “The Dark I Know Well” and “The Song of Purple Summer” have become a routine part of the songbook of Broadway. One last original production note. The original cast featured the pre-Glee pairing of actors Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele before they became “stars”. Now on to the 2022 Porchlight production.
The tortured “Romeo and Juliet” couple are played by Jack Decesare and Maya Lou Hlava. Both have solid voices showcased wonderfully. Justin Akira Kono’s music direction is spot on. The entire cast was in powerful voice. Decesare’s Melchior, the defiant and rebellious leading man, railroaded by all of the adults who surround him. From educators to parents, none of the young cast is served well by their elders. Case in point, Hlava’s Wendla who isn’t given any information on her changing body and how babies are made. Her clearly uncomfortable mother does nothing to embolden or empower her daughter. Heck, she does nothing to even educate her daughter in the simplest of terms. Totally naïve, no internet, no television, no friends and no “Seventeen” or “Cosmopolitan” magazine to consult, when Wendla finds herself in the family way, she is stunned. Stupefied in fact. Her mother then passes her off to an unscrupulous doctor under the dark of night, at which point her fate is sealed.
McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell play Adult woman and Adult man, a delicious if not repulsive collection of characters, ranging from parents to educators who continually fail their young progeny in every way. They would fit seamlessly on the couch at Fox News. It is impossible not to draw comparisons to the repugnant similarities of politicos Betsy DeVos, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis, even though the fictional characters were written a decade before these bozos were elected. When their chicanery leads to a student killing himself, they counter with smoke and mirror tactics. These two would have brought marshmallows to the Salem Witch Trials. Both actors nailing the rotten-to-the-core cornucopia of characters they portray.
The supporting cast doesn’t have it any better. Martha, the always engaging Ariana Burks, is physically abused by her father while her mother turns a blind eye. Newcomer Tiffany Taylor plays Ilse, a runaway who fled her home in the middle of winter to escape her parents physical abuse, and who now lives in an artist colony where she is still sexually abused by the male artists. John Marshall, Jr. and Kelan M. Smith play Hanschen and Ernst, a young gay couple who steal a couple fleeting kisses and most of the audience’s laughter. Which leaves me to Quinn Kelch’s character Moritz. An anxious young man and struggling student, Moritz is unfairly and unceremoniously blacklisted by his teachers and then shamed by his father. Completely alienated, he takes his own life. With that said, Kelch’s approach to the character, comically overly exaggerated facial expressions, so distracted from the performance, any sympathy for the character quickly evaporated. Kelch would fit flawlessly in a production of Green Day’s American Idiot, but here, his choice just distracted from the material. It didn’t fit at all and felt like he was performing in an entirely different show than the rest of the cast.
Clearly there was no one busier in the creative team than intimacy director, Kristina Fluty. Every young character plagued by their own confused adolescent intimacy issues, but under Fluty’s eye, nothing seemed too over the top or out of anyone’s comfort zone. Christopher Rhoton’s scenic design elements peppered the stage with determination, creating poignant moments in the corners of the stage. Patrick Chan’s beautiful lighting aided in heart stopping moments when fading to black told more than any gun shot or screaming sound effect ever could. Bill Morey’s costuming paying homage to the original, without busting Porchlight’s obvious budgeting limitations.
Budding sexuality through the eyes of teenagers is a purposely uncomfortable narrative. Spring Awakening could easily be played as one note teenage rebellion, but under the watchful eye of Didier, there are true moments of touching artistry on display. Now, on the political spectrum, I am about as liberal as they come, proudly so. These parents not giving their children even the most remedial information on what is happening with their bodies is just criminal. However, there would be no show if everyone made the right decisions all of the time. I am looking at this show squarely through the gaze of 2022 and not 1891. For any of the shows flaws, and there aren’t many, the ending finale “The Song of Purple Summer” is a stunner. Didier and company served the material well.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents Spring Awakening is now playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through June 2, 2022.