There’s no show quite like Spring Awakening, and the students at American University, directed by Amber Jackson, delivered a rousing performance of the beloved musical Thursday night at the Greenberg Theatre in a style that made it all their own.
With music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, Spring Awakening is a musical that gets at the core of discovering personal identity in the tumultuous time of adolescence and emerging adulthood. Dealing with issues ranging from blind adherence to authority, sexuality, domestic abuse, and tragic loss, the heavy and dark overtones of this Tony-winning musical are set against an alternative/folk-rock score in late-19th century Germany, which, as the dramaturg Mahlia Fulk notes in the playbill, was based on The Awakening of Spring by Frank Wedekind which examined the reality of adolescent suicide in Germany.
Originally starring Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff when it opened on Broadway in 2006, the musical almost immediately rose to notoriety for the tough issues it tackles, the refreshing score, and how honestly it portrays the confusion of adolescent life. Rather than shying away from issues like sexual identity, teenage pregnancy, and domestic abuse, Spring Awakening brings these issues center stage. I was pleased to find that the entire ensemble from American University carried forth the original themes of the show—not shying away from them, but, rather, embracing them and delivering a mature and authentic performance. Each performer brought dignity to the story and narrative of his or her character.
From the first couple of scenes in which we are introduced to the charismatic Melchior Gabor (played by Matt Meyers), the naive Wendla Bergmann (played by Jordan Dong), and their fellow classmates, we’re immediately drawn into the tension between their innocent childhood and emerging adulthood under the influence of the authoritarian schoolmasters (played by Grant Saunders and Robin Weiner).
Under the music direction of Christopher Wingert, the opening number “Mama Who Bore Me” showcased Dong’s ability to carry a tender, almost lullaby-ish song with grace and poise, while also strength when she reprises it in the following number with her fellow schoolgirls. She is a young dynamic actress who handled the nuances of the role with responsibility. Her moving performance of “Whispering” at the end of the show showed how she hypnotizes an audience with her voice.
Melchior and his schoolboys rocked the stage with the first show-stopping number of the night “The Bitch of Living,” which was a jolting, toe-tapping number that underscored the rebelliousness brewing inside these schoolchildren. With flashing and colored lights (lighting design by Jason Arnold) inside a bare-stilted frame whose exposed wooden beams resembled a mid-century schoolhouse (set design by Samina Vieth), it felt as though the walls might come tumbling down in the angsty, ground-shaking number.
Other standout performances of the evening include Stephanie Wilson as Martha and Izzy Smelkinson as the free spirit Ilse in “The Dark I Know Well”—a haunting duet in which the two recount their darkest experiences. Jake Flum as Moritz Stiefel, who suffers from the intense weight of his parents’ expectations to succeed in school, was similarly stunning in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” a mash-up he sings with Ilse as he contemplates his fate after fearing being disowned by his family.
The show truly did save the best for last: the final number, “The Song of Purple Summer,” featured an a capella verse, and, with the entire cast lined up at the front of the stage, their mellifluous harmonies were a testament not only to the material, but also to the strength of the ensemble (vocal arrangement by AnnMarie Milozzo).
Spring Awakening was no stranger to many of the folks in the audience Thursday night—unsurprising since it has, after all, won 8 Tony Awards, 4 Drama Desk Awards, and even a Grammy, yet, even for those like myself who knew the musical inside and out, seeing it performed at the Greenburg Theatre by a group of eager young actors and actresses from American University was like watching it for the first time again—each note raw and fresh.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Spring Awakening has two more performances tomorrow, Saturday, February 14, 2015, at 2 PM and 8 PM at American University’s Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Ave NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.