With her green roots and sneakers that spout “fuck you,” Billie Eilish, who swept Sunday night’s pop Grammys, sings a new song for a new generation. Her 2020 teen angst recalls hardcore punk and rock of earlier generations from Sid Vicious to Marilyn Manson – all revolutionaries whose hardcore lyrics spoke of disenchantment, disengagement, frustration, and pain.
Round House Theatre’s new production of the teenage angst-fest Spring Awakening, couldn’t find a better companion in the world of pop culture than Eilish. In fact, Eilish would easily blend in with the brash young ensemble cast. The 2006 Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical mines the inner turmoil of teenagers living in oppressively conservative 19th-century Germany, with a head-banging score that’s equal parts unbridled frustration and poetic painfest; and it feels right at home in 2020.
Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, Frühlings Erwachen or Spring’s Awakening, it rankled conventional society when it was finally produced 15 years later. Reinvented as a raucous, bawdy, sexy rock musical, it opened on Broadway in 2006 and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. Spring Awakening follows in the footsteps of rock-infused musicals like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent, and pumps up the volume. More importantly, it pulls back the curtain on urgent issues and reminds those of us who survived our teens mostly intact that no one wants to relive the high school years.
Nothing can be more urgent than the puberty-infused questions and urges of adolescents. That a century earlier Wedekind dug deep into the stories of teenagers’ struggles with sexual awakening – masturbation, love, desire, homosexuality, sadomasochism, rape, incest, and abortion – and their emotional inner lives demonstrates that nothing is new under the sun. What is new is what shocked and enraged a conservative society that repressed these questions, feels fresh and of the moment in 2020. Fifteen years after Sater wrote the book and lyrics and Sheik composed and orchestrated the score, Spring Awakening remains a crucial musical for our time.
Alan Paul, directing the Round House Theatre production in its recently renovated and refreshed Bethesda theater, has captured the essence of teenage angst with a cast of young but savvy, experienced performers who dig deep into the inner lives of high schoolers.
While the setting is a repressive early 1900s German town, where the teens must study hard, make good grades, obey their parents, and remain implacable while their hormones are raging, the work is timeless. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like life in high-achieving Montgomery, Fairfax, or Howard counties. That’s why Spring Awakening is well on its way to becoming an evergreen classic – though I don’t think high school drama departments will do an unabridged version anytime – the content is entirely adult. And not for those of modest sensibilities.
The empty thrust stage is dominated by a huge reproduction of Johann Wenzel Peter’s Romantic painting “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” just at the moment when Eve grasps the forbidden fruit. This brilliant choice, by director Paul, sets the tone for the evening, as the cast harmonizes through punkish rock ballads and soulful solos. Adam Rigg’s set features a moving turntable, desks that get pushed in and out, and lengths of fluorescent lights that hang on the backdrop. Sarah Cubbage’s period costumes – knee socks, knee-grazing short pants for the boys and skirts for the girls and crisp white school-ready tops or blouses set the staid tone, ready for teen rebellion.
The plot centers on Melchior, the precocious philosopher in his all-boys school, and his growing passion for innocent Wendla. Moritz, less academically gifted, struggles to succeed as his hormones get the best of him. Other characters illuminate the secret, often painful, lives of teenagers when society is overwhelmingly repressive. Ilse runs from her horrific home life to escape abuse. Ernst struggles with his sexuality, before giving in to more daring Hanschen.
The adults in these teens’ lives (all played by either Tonya Beckman or Bobby Smith) range from inept to cruel. They demonstrate the uselessness of their advice, instruction, demands, or even answers to basic questions. Beckman and Smith allow their portrayals to range from merely blind, to stoically insensitive to outrageously mean. The message: teenagers, you’re on your own.
In pulling back the curtain on a wide range of cultural taboos – from masturbation to premarital sex, parental abuse, incest, homosexuality, abortion, depression, and suicide – the ensemble casts shines. As Wendla, Cristina Sastre’s sweet voice in “Mama Who Bore Me” matures knowingly for Act II’s “Whispering” and her evocative duet with Evan Daves’ Melchior, “The Word of Your Body.” Daves’ rendition of the edgiest and most intellectual teen rebellion written, “All That’s Known,” sets the cast up for the first act’s anthemic fist-pumper, “The Bitch of Living.” In Act II, he pounds out “Totally Fucked” with rousing support from the cast with James Cunningham conducting an off-stage six-piece ensemble featuring guitars, strings, bass, and drums.
As Moritz, Sean Watkinson, with his puppy dog eyes, unruly bleached curls, leads the boys in “And Then There Were None.” Notable throughout the musical is the division of men’s and women’s voices so when they do come together, most particularly for the closing “Song of Purple Summer” the low and high notes of the melodies don’t merely sing, they serve as a metaphor for the arc of the teen years, with ups and downs, fits and starts, sentiment and rage, all sung with boldness and bravery.
As a theatrical experience, Spring Awakening toggles between being immersive – the first Broadway run was an early innovator in offering limited on-stage seating; inclusive – the 2015 production blended deaf and hearing-impaired actors with those without any hearing loss; and diverse – casting a young cast that is far from cookie cutter.
This production draws from those earlier ones, but takes the musical into some new territory. Round House’s terrific ensemble – as tightly wound up as the show’s teens are in discovering themselves, their bodies and their loves and losses – features a fair representation of what Montgomery County, Maryland, Round House’s home, looks like. They’re tattooed and pierced. They wear cornrows. They have burgundy, aqua, or magenta hair. Their bodies are all shapes and sizes. While a few of the performers wouldn’t need to show ID to buy a beer, most were fully believable as angsty teens. And they are us – searching for identity, love, and caring in a world that remains unrelentingly cold, uncaring, and unpredictable.
Director Paul’s approach is to shatter taboos and, perhaps, shock staid sensibilities. There’s nudity, simulated masturbation, S&M scenarios, simulated sex, and, perhaps most disturbing, simulated suicide. It’s easy to picture these characters listening to Billie Eilish. Parents of teens may want to view this one in advance, before buying tickets. The advisory at the theater entrance notes: “Contains adult language, sexuality, explicit content, brief nudity, physical violence, death by suicide.” And that’s beside the flashing lights, theatrical haze, and gunshots. So the faint of heart or those with staid sensibilities, take heed.
Opening night came with its own touch of angst: a balky trap door broke open, requiring a pause in the action because it would be unsafe for the show to continue with a gaping hole in the stage. A quartet of stagehands bearing drills and screws rushed out to fix it. The audiences responded with rousing and encouraging applause. And the show went on without a hitch.