Spring Awakening Now at Northern Stage
A playwright “started to write, without any sort of plan,” about his own and his classmates’ experiences at an elite boarding school, where students were dealing with their own sexual desires in a repressive, authoritarian environment. His pain ran deep. It was all too much for Germany in 1906, and Frank Wedekind’s play, Spring Awakening, was censored. After being banned in Berlin in 1912, a judge reversed, claiming the play was a valuable and realistic work, showing that young people . . .
“. . . perish in the ensuing conflict, because their appointed mentors, their parents and teachers, in the author’s view, fail to guide them with proper understanding, because they are prudish and lacking in worldly wisdom.”
A century later, Wedekind’s play formed the basis of the multiple Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening, the musical, now showing at Northern Stage in White River Junction. It’s a storm of teenaged angst, portraying ignorance, confusion and despair, not to mention rage against the establishment. It might be this generation’s Hair, without the lighter flower-power bits. (Some critics have compared it also to Rent.)
There’s an interesting contrast between the temporal setting, the period costumes, and the back-in-time set and the anachronistic music, contemporary rock, (Think Jesus Christ, Superstar) which helps bring the story smack-dab into the present day. The lyrics convey the students’ innermost thoughts as they struggle to understand sexual desire, the mysteries of reproduction, abuse and rejection at the hands of the adults who run their world.
As is true of Northern Stage, the production values are always high. The leads, adult actors César Carlos Carreño as Melchior and Lily Talevski as Wendla, are convincing as teens; Talevski in particular has a sweet and powerful singing voice. Noah Ruebeck as Moritz conveys not just rebellion but a despair of the soul. The talented band is on stage. The choreography is first-rate, angular, jabbing, as if to punctuate and reinforce the lyrics and mood.
Gird yourself. It’s a dark and disturbing play, not so much entertaining as thought-provoking. The song “Totally F**cked (as spelled in the program) in Act Two is a welcome, somewhat comic, relief and a point of universal experience. Who among us has not found ourselves in a situation such as that of Melchior, when all hope is gone and we are indeed nothing if not “totally f**cked?” And if you are of an age far removed from youth, you might wonder about the muscularity of the gloom. I did, and then reconnected with my own younger days, when I (and maybe you?) penned vaguely nihilistic poetry about 1960s-era racism and the many atrocities of the Vietnam War. “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Different issues, same intensity.
The play is recommended for those over the age of 14 years. If you have some young people in your life, it could well be a vehicle for intergenerational viewing and post-play discussion. Imagine what you might learn.
Spring Awakening, directed by Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, is on stage through October 23, 2022. Click here for tickets.
(Production photos by Mark Washburn, courtesy of Northern Stage. Quoted text from Spring Awakening playbill.)
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.