A more apt title for this rock musical would be “Nipped in the Bud,” since two of the three main characters, all teenagers caught in the crosshairs between childhood and adulthood, are dead before spring is over.
Or better yet, “Sexual Awakening.” “Spring Awakening” doesn’t prepare unsuspecting theater goers who might think this is another coming-of-age love story for the actual and more realistic content: wet dreams, masturbation, sexual abuse, sadomasochism, non-conforming gender identity, abortion, suicide… whoa! That’s a lot to pack into one show! But while the story is harsh, and the lyrics and the acting are unusually explicit, the marvel is that the show never stoops to being maudlin, hokey, or sensationalist. The Kahilu Youth Troupe brought that off with energy, honesty, and earnestness, throwing themselves into the performances body, heart and soul. And while it is dark, the production is relieved by lilting melodies and touches of humor.
The story is told entirely through the point of view of the young protagonists. The opening song is from Wendla, who still wants the freedom of a child to wear whatever she wants, but whose mother now constricts her choices to what is proper for someone not-quite-a-girl any more. Beginning to have sexual feelings herself, she wants to know how babies are made but gets no answer: “Mama who bore me… and made me so sad.” This opening reeled the audience back to our own adolescence; many of us probably remember having the same questions and the same experience of getting rebuffed. When my mother tried to talk to me about the birds and the bees – but not humans! – the closest she could come was to advise, “Keep your clothes on!” In Wendla’s case, her mother confusingly conflates lust and love, both only possible for the safely married.
The villains of the story are adults who conspire to make adolescents confused, guilty, and ignorant, and as the story progresses, the constrictions tighten. Parents, teachers, and religious leaders all treat sexuality as if were a dirty taboo; tellingly, in the cast a single performer plays the role of all “Adult Women” and one man plays all “Adult Men.” The adults are nameless protectors not of their children, but of the status quo. (The children all have names.) Already brainwashed, they are now brainwashers, willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of social conformity.
A weakness is that the female characters are undeveloped and undifferentiated compared to the male roles. The young girls are innocent victims, while the boys have individuality: Melchoir is rebellious and thinks critically, Moritz is self-doubting and impetuous, Hanschen exudes adolescent narcissism. Even Wendla’s character is flat; you wonder what makes Melchoir fall for her!
The musical is based on a play written by Frank Wedekin in Germany back in 1891, and the performers wear clothing evocative of that era: long cotton stockings, dress shorts for boys, chaste long dresses for girls. While it might have been tempting to update to contemporary times, the 19th century German setting reinforces the fact that no matter where or when, confusion and fear come with puberty. Suddenly, your own body does incomprehensible things on its own without your direction, desires and fantasies unexpectedly intrude and you can’t concentrate on anything else – for example, when a normal piano lesson for a boy suddenly shifts when he finds he can’t stop staring at his teacher’s breasts. Songwriter Duncan Sheik’s throbbing rhythms even during scenes that should be quiet or sad reflect the edgy, blood pounding intensity of the urges and emotions roiling unbidden within the young.
Under Beth Dunnington’s direction, this production was flawless. The minimal staging effectively used bleachers on both sides where the ensemble sat, like a Greek chorus, ready to comment and participate. A gauzy curtain allowed the audience to see the outlines of the band which delivered a rock concert worthy of listening to all by itself. While appropriately loud, the band did not overshadow any of the voices of the performers, whose clear articulation made the lyrics easy to understand. Angel Prince’s choreography encouraged the performers to rock out when they could (Matthew Mazzella stood out here), or to be repressed when they had to be; the choreography and acting felt natural, not complicated or contrived.
Angela Mihelich as Wendla sang with power and control, without exaggerated vibrato or theatrics. The acting chops of Nicholas Haas as Melchoir stood out as he demonstrated the extremes of emotion that manifest in young people, and his fine tenor maintained clarity and tone even at falsetto levels. My own favorite singer was Daniel Gregg as Moritz; there is an unusual, slightly nasal quality to his voice, making me want to hear more of him singing in different genres.
A day after this production which illustrates the traumatic impact of repression on young people, the US Supreme Court decided that clinics for pregnant women do not have to reveal that they are anti-abortion or that they are unlicensed, a setback to women’s reproductive freedom. In Hawaii County, we have the highest rates of attempted teen suicide in the state. Education policy has required teaching to the test rather than teaching to help young people become successful as they, themselves, define it. We incarcerate too many young men for too small infractions. Are we back to the future of 1891 Germany?
But Melchoir survives. Inspired by the ghosts of his friend and of his lover, we can hope and imagine that he will go into the “purple summer” more determined than ever to take down the repressive walls of bourgeois social conventions.
“Spring Awakening” awakens adults to the importance of providing loving mentorship to our children, our future – and it is obvious that Beth Dunnington, along with her collaborators from the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, has done just that with the Kahilu Youth Troupe. It is a stunning performance.
View the supplement version of this article.
All photos by Steve Roby