Sometimes you know a show is working because it pisses you off as much as it entertains you. That is the case for me with the 2006 Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening, and the powerful new production from Porchlight Music Theatre easily accomplishes both.
Performed on a mostly bare stage (though Christopher Rhoton’s set makes for plenty of opportunities for lighting designer Patrick Chan to show off and enhance the mood), this show is almost completely focused on a group of German teens whose raging hormones and poor understanding of the world lead to tragic conclusions. Director/choreographer Brenda Didier allows her talented actors to highlight the inner turmoil that the musical, with a book and lyrics by Stephen Sater, and Duncan Sheik’s rock-influenced music and based on an 1891 German play, makes abundantly clear is a universal aspect of adolescence. The fact that the adults in this case fail their children so utterly is brilliantly handled, at times comical, and always supremely infuriating.
One of the conceits of the play is that all of its adult characters—mostly parents and teachers—are played by two actors. McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell bring all of these characters to life brilliantly as both foils and antagonists—knowing or unwitting—to the main teen characters. Set in a sexually repressed 19th Century Germany, the parents here can’t handle such fundamental things as explaining reproduction to a child (Vendla, played by Maya Lou Hlava) who gets angry when she is told that “the stork” has delivered her sister a baby, leaving her and her friends to flail in the darkness…or to obtain the information from friends who have discovered the truth.
One of these knowledgable teens is Melchior (Jack Decesare), the handsome and brilliant young man who makes no secret (among his peers at least) that his exploration into everything that adults have been lying about or holding back has left him bereft of any real belief system. He refuses to conform to societal molds, denies his Lutheran upbringing, and happily shares what he has learned from books about the birds and the bees with his good friend, the underachieving Moritz (Quinn Kelch) in a multipage document…with illustrations.
Melchior, Moritz, and Vendla become the core of the show as Vendla and Melchior find themselves seriously attracted to each other and Moritz becomes angrier and more despondent over the too-high expectations his father and teachers place upon him. He does not wish to become this year’s Ilse (Tiffany T. Taylor), who has become an outcast after being kicked out of her home by her abusive parents and now lives in an artists’ colony in the woods. (Seeing the teachers smirking and joking about making sure that Moritz will not be among those to pass into the next year’s class is horrifying, as is his father’s outrage at the news, along with the gun he leaves where his son can find it.)
Decesare’s Melchior is clearly intelligent and honorable, though he, like all the rest, gets caught up in the more confusing elements of growing up. The friendship he offers the unpopular Moritz and the tenderness with which he treats Vendla show him to be a genuinely nice guy, yet he allows himself to get fully carried away by his frustrations with his life to the point where he actually hurts Vendla…a thing he cannot even believe he has done. Decesare’s lovely singing voice makes songs like “The Mirror-Blue Night” and the haunting “Left Behind” even more emotional, and when he finally lets everything out in “We’re Fucked,” you deeply feel the loss of his own innocence in every way.
Moritz, by contrast, is not a very bright boy, and he is holding in a lot of pain. Quinn’s expressive face and rocking vocals are perfect for the hurt and the anger revealed in songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “And Then There Were None,” the latter an act of desperation as he attempts unsuccessfully to procure help to leave the country and begin life afresh, but he is equally comfortable sounding like an worldly wise mentor in “Those You’ve Known.”
Hlava, who opens the show with the powerful and poignant “Mama Who Bore Me,” is absolutely believable as the innocent Vendla, who finds herself experiencing something wonderful that she does not understand at all. (I want to kill her mother for that.) With Decesare, she sings the intimate “The Word of Your Body” and “The Guilty Ones,” two of the best songs in the musical, both of which completely depend on two young performers giving themselves fully to the material.
The subtitle of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play is “A Children’s Tragedy,” a phrase reminiscent of the subtitle of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five: “The Children’s Crusade.” In both stories, innocents suffer and/or die due to decisions by elders who cannot recall the struggles of being a teenager in a world that makes no sense. (The song “We’re Fucked” even has echoes of the “Blah Blah Blah” of adults in Charlie Brown’s world, where they are similarly impossible to understand.) I may be over-reacting, but I can’t watch shows like this without feeling my own anger explode, just as I felt when similar things happened to students when I was a teacher. Here, Didier’s brilliant direction and choreography make it clear that she too understands this pain.
Spring Awakening ends with the damaged Ilse leading the cast in the hopeful and beautiful “The Song of Purple Summer,” an homage to life as it might be if we stop letting our beliefs and politics get in the way. Porchlight’s production, in which the tragic lead characters smile and are recognized by the others as they blend into the group singing the song, allows us to pull away from the horror and feel good about the possibilities.