GREENBELT – Child abuse, school bullying, teen pregnancy, suicide, botched back-alley abortions and gay relationships which must remain hidden, including oppressive standardized testing systems which determine – or limit – one’s future affect the world today.
Such issues are frighteningly current, yet also lie at the heart of the German play “Spring Awakening” (Frühlings Erwachen) from 1891.
It is difficult for one to believe this play was written not in 1991 but in 1891. Improbably, this “tragedy of childhood” as the play’s author, Frank Wedekind, subtitled the work was turned into a successful Broadway alternative rock/folk musical in 2006 starring Glee’s Lea Michelle. It is now being staged at the Greenbelt Arts Center by the Wolf Pack Theatre Company.
“Spring Awakening” revolves around the “awakening” relationship between a gifted high school student named Melchior and a naïve girl called Wendla. Complicating their relationship is the distress of their mutual friend Moritz, who is on a downward spiral: he is failing at school, forever dooming his student career.
The situation creates severe emotional pressure for the students, who are trying to negotiate a path which balances their personal desires with their social obligations, during a time in the characters’ lives in which the boundaries between these competing spheres are not entirely clear.
Christian Gonzales excellently portrays Melchoir Gabor; the actor compellingly conveys fluctuating between moods of confidence and despair in songs such as “Left Behind.”
Angel Duque similarly makes an effective Moritz Stiefel, driven by depression and anger yet singing “Don’t Do Sadness.” Both are in excellent voice for the demands of singing and shouting, which the musical score of “Spring Awakening” demands.
Rachel Sharp beautifully portrays the innocent Wendla Bergmann, with a voice that expresses the sweetness of the character – especially in the song “Mama Who Bore Me.” The young cast is particularly energetic and engaging in ensemble singing and dancing.
A crucial casting decision involved having all of the older adults played by actors Tom Tomlinson and Christine Jacobs.
This is effective, as the adult parents, teachers and pastor speak all with one voice, in a sense, to deprive the youth of their innocence and a smooth transition into the world of adulthood. It is done even as the adults claim that they are doing the exact opposite, saying, as Wendla’s mother Frau Bergmann does in the original Wedekind play, “I want to take special care of you just now, child.” A “tragedy of childhood” it is indeed.
Going against the trend of many current productions of this musical, co-directors Christopher Overly and William Leary of the Wolf Pack Theatre Company has opted for an approach which deemphasizes the setting in Wilhelmine Germany in favor of a more generalized staging.
This assists in stressing the play’s enduring relevance to the world of today, for “Spring Awakening,” though not hope, springs eternal. To this end of honing in on the play’s universality, the staging uses a minimalist setting with a stage-wide chalkboard and a few symbolic props (a ladder representing a tree and overturned chairs representing gravestones). The presence of the blackboard emphasizes academic pressure and writing the names of characters on it in chalk.
In a poignant scene, gunpowder is represented by chalk. The orchestra, under the excellent musical direction of Jennifer Quilty, also segues between the world of the past and the world of the present, with a violin and cello signaling the European society of the prior century, and an electric guitar and electronic keyboard for our current era.
A word about the German source for “Spring Awakening,” to which we frequently refer here: the Broadway musical only hints at the darkness and irony of the original. The names of the characters, for example, have German meanings of significance.
For example, the Headmaster has the last name of “Knochenbruch,” which is German for “bone fracture,” referring to the corporal punishment experienced by Moritz but even more, to the fractured personality Moritz endures due to the academic stress wrought by the headmaster.
For those who find this musical somber and dark, the ending is relatively light compared to the original German play! Nonetheless, the Broadway musical – and especially this version – of “Spring Awakening” succeeds brilliantly in conveying the timelessness of the play, as youth try to find their bearings in the so-called adult world.
“Spring Awakening” plays at the Greenbelt Arts Center through September 30. It features adult subject matter, graphic scenes and profanity – thus, it is “a tragedy of childhood” not recommended for viewers in childhood themselves.
The Wolf Pack Theatre Company is joined by support from the Family Crisis Center of Prince George’s County, the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville and Community Crisis Services, Inc. A representative from the latter is available in the lobby should anyone in the audience desire to discuss the vital issues presented by the play or need support.