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Review: ‘Spring Awakening’ at Wildwood Summer Theatre at the Arts Barn

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Spring Awakening (co-created by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik and now playing at the Arts Barn in The Kentlands) has a circular tragedy to it. Teens, struggling through youth and confusion and bodies flushed with desire, will be punished for their youth, grow older, and become parents who will forget their own younger years and start the cycle up for their own children, who will be confused and flushed in their own turn as well.

Every circle is another circle.

It is Germany, in the late nineteenth century, when the musical, thoughtfully directed by Itai Yasur, begins. Wendla (a delicately vulnerable Leslie Schneider), baffled by the mysteries of pregnancy and bodies, asks the absolute wrong person to explain it all to her: her mother (Alina Gaynutdinova, who brings a dogged determination to each of the roles she plays in this production). Her answer (babies come from a wife who loves her husband with all of her heart) sets in motion Wendla’s tragic arc, and echoes the arcs of all the young people left to raise themselves in this village.

Cast of Spring Awakening. Photo by Caitlin Barnes.

Moritz (a heartbreaking Ben Simon who balances that with a lovely voice) struggles with school and hormones and dreams of stockinged legs. Hanschen and Ernst (Jay Conner and Jordan Rodriguez) struggle with their feelings for each other. Melchior (an energetic Devin Cain) presents as having it all figured out, but like most adolescent boys who spout a lot of Marxism, he actually doesn’t. Martha and Ilse (Emily Gordon and Sanjana Taskar, both extraordinary talents with powerful voices) each struggle with abuses of all stripes. All are struggling with the central argument of the show: “How will we know what to do if our parents don’t tell us?”

It’s a terrible place to leave these kids, that argument. Adults in Spring Awakening (handled by both Gaynutdinova and Alex Palmer) aren’t comfortable with their own power, and, having forgotten what being a teenager is like, can’t bring themselves to engage honestly with their children. “Our bodies are the guilty ones,” Wendla sings, because guilt is a reliable category to assign our failings to, and adolescence is colored with so much shame.

Spring Awakening describes what happens when information is parceled out in morally-flavored portions. Teenagers aren’t ready for everything we know – this is the approach adults use, not taking into consideration at all how little they (or we) know even at whatever age adulthood is these days. Is it 40? Is it 50? Is it ever? The show – and especially this production of it – is poignant and challenging and uplifting and soul-crushing, sometimes all within the same song.

The circular tragedy – parents’ mistakes with their children become the mistakes those children will make as parents – is echoed in the staging. It’s nineteenth century Germany, but it is also, at times, now – in the present, with cell phones and stereos. Until the finale, “The Song of Purple Summer,” the cast assembles in modern dress. Life may be a tragedy with no solution since we forget the lessons of childhood in the grinding responsibilities of middle age.

Devin Cain as Melchior. Photo by Allison Griffith.

The cast sings gorgeously together under the musical direction of Maddy Gershunskiy. Songs that involve the company, or groups of singers, fill the space with glorious sound. (Especially the opening of Act II, with “The Guilty Ones;” the stunningly, rousingly profane “Totally F*cked;” and the somber and gorgeous closer, “The Song of Purple Summer.”) Some other notable performances to watch for in this show are Moritz’s “And Then There Were None,” with his perfect triplets; and “The Dark I Know Well,” a haunting song about the physical abuse young girls face in this German village, and which especially showcase the superb voices of Gordon and Taskar.

A moment more, though, about the sexual politics of Spring Awakening. The girls are stronger and more capable than the boys. The boys are all, “We’re horny! School is hard! What about the proletariat!” and at the first sign of struggle they bow out quickly. The girls instead say things like, “Our dads beat us and sometimes we’re raped into pregnancy that will kill us with an abortion.” They fight for life and experience and are punished. The boys seem to take it for granted. The show offers those who are interested a lot of fodder for On the Drive Home conversation.

Spring Awakening is a production of Wildwood Summer Theatre, a program that is entirely run by young people ages 14 – 25. This means every responsibility – from the actors on the stage to the set designer (Gaynutdinova, who economically and thoughtfully uses the space, and who is also behind the minimalist, effective costuming) to the solid group of musicians providing music for this production – are all right around the age of the characters who are struggling for us as an audience. It’s an extraordinary level of verisimilitude that serves this staging well.

Wildwood Summer Theatre offers those just starting their career in theater a unique chance to see everything from the ground floor. It’s also launched the careers of many theater professionals who have gone on to greater and greater success. (For instance, the director for the original Broadway run of Spring Awakening is a Wildwood alum.) The D.C. Metro area is very lucky to have such a venue in its back yard.

Running time: 2 hours. with one intermission.

Spring Awakening plays through August 12, 2017 at Wildwood Summer Theatre performing at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square, in Gaithersburg, MD. Tickets are available at the door, or purchase them online.

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