I’m sad to say that Dominion Stage’s production of that musical hit of hits, Spring Awakening, which I saw at Gunston Theatre One this past Saturday, did not seem ready for presentation. Lines had been learned, cues had been memorized, characters had been explored, but the cast had not yet made the show theirs. I did not see a group of actors proudly going pedal to the metal as they finally showed the fruits of their labor; I saw a production in need of “oomph.”
The scandalous dialogue for Spring Awakening was written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind in a drama of the same name. Steven Sater reworked the story in the nineties, tweaking the wording, adding songs, and workshopping it until 2006. Tony and Grammy award winner Duncan Sheik put his lyrics to music. The hybrid of “then” and “now” keeps things energetic and communicates the timelessness of rocky adolescence.
So what I can say to the cast and crew? “Dress this awesome skeleton you’ve been given!” It’s community theatre, I know – small budgets working with lesser time and people with working lives outside the craft. It’s not Broadway, I’m aware, but some of the best shows I’ve seen were great precisely because the production team knew “we’re practically broke, but we’ve got to do this show justice. Let’s get creative.”
And what a plot to muck around in! Spring Awakening is about a bunch of 19th century German teens, victimized in various ways by the adults who run their lives. By my count, there was exactly one healthy adult-teen relationship, and it wasn’t enough to keep a tragedy from happening. The kids express their rage, defiance, fear, and confusion through alt rock anthems like “Mama Who Bore Me,” “The Dark I Know Well,” and of course, “Totally ___.” Softer, more haunting melodies like “The Word of Your Body” accompany the universal adolescent trial of budding sexuality. These teens are just lousy with hormones, and because it’s the 1890s, that’s a problem. Their oppressors, the adults, can’t bring themselves to explain even the most basic mechanics of the sexual act. Biological urge and youthful exuberance butt heads with propriety, and guess which side wins in a beautiful train-wreck?
A male student, Moritz, is confusing his daydreams of stocking-clad legs with the coming of insanity. The only source of information on men and women and what they tend to do is Melchior, a cerebral, forward-thinking rebel. This best friend of Moritz knows it all from his disinterested studies of radical books; Wendla, on the other hand, knows zilch. When the young girl “in bloom” presses her mother for information on just how her sister came to bear a child, Frau Bergman cops out – a woman must love a man in her own way with all her heart. Thanks for clearing things right up, ma.
As Melchior and Wendla secretly rekindle their childhood friendship – with some exciting new feelings sparking up, of course – the inevitable happens in a hayloft. Melchior understands what’s about to happen when he relieves them both of their clothes, and assumes Wendla does, too. Utterly clueless, Wendla is alternately scared and intrigued, consenting and protesting, which of course makes the boy’s actions a serious moral issue. This happens against the backdrop of firm Protestant faith, an educational system with the wrong priorities, hush-hush abuse, neglect, bisexuality, and a suicide. Simpler times back in the day, huh?
Director William D. Parker’s cast for the most part gave suitable performances. Josh Goldman (Melchior), Jenny Christine (Wendla), and Dejon Campbell (Moritz) were in a word, “Okay.” I do compliment actress Kimberly Cetron, who played all of the adult female roles. She had a versatile firmness – chilly, freezing, loving, begrudging – that was just right. I also liked Rosemarie Stephens-Booker as Ilsa. She and Ashley Zielinski (Martha) had two of the stronger voices on stage, and so their rendition of “The Dark I Know Well” was a somber highlight.
I came from the time that produced Angels in America; so I’m not shocked by frank portrayals of sex on stage. But if you’re going to perform a play like Spring Awakening you have to be bold enough so that when the acts have to be performed on stage, the actors are able to own them. Whether it’s Hanschen having some alone time, Martha’s father unzipping his fly, or Melchior and Wendla doing the deed, these moments should seem like they belong.
I felt that the minor characters – Georg (Michael Castelblanco), Thea (Stephanie Brown), Otto (Devon Ross) and others – were not given the space to really come to life. Thus during “My Junk,” I wished Georg and his piano teacher had been up towards the audience and not off in a back corner.
Although they could have used scene pieces to convey the hayloft, the graveyard, the forest, etc., props (the domain of Helen Bard-Sobola) did an adequate job of bringing us places. Hanging towards the back of the stage were three large boards upon which the boughs of an oak tree had been painted. Gels cast different lights upon the sky behind, working well with the songs to set the given mood. This simple addition, created by Baron Pugh, David M. Moretti, and others, gave audiences great images to take home.
An even brighter side of the production were the costumes, which were of great quality. Lederhosen and suspenders, pinafores and petticoats, long ruffled skirts and the typical schoolmarm attire graced the stage, keeping us in the Germany of the 1890s. Excellent work, Linda Baker, and all who helped in that department.
Choreography needed some fine-tuning. From a look at the cast bios, choreographer Amanda Layton Whiteman was not dealing with people flush with dance experience. That’s totally fine and still workable. It was not playing to the male ensemble members’ strengths having them move in precise, mechanical ways during a few songs.
Running Time: 2 hours plus 15 minutes for an intermission.
Advisory: Very adult situations.
Spring Awakening runs from October 5th through the 20th. Gunston Theatre One is located at 3700 Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA 22206. Please call (571) DS-SHOWS or click here for tickets. Shows begin at 8:00 PM.