The last time I saw anything involving live acting was my high school’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, which, if you do not know, has something to do with an anthropomorphic plant that eats people while singing jazzy tunes.
The point is, it had been a while since I had gone to see actors perform in three dimensions, but my streak was broken on Saturday, April 8 when I saw the Barnstormers production of Duncan Sheik’s 2006 musical, Spring Awakening.
The show was overseen by New York-based director Claire Edmonds with the talented Eric Rausch, who has worked on more than 500 productions over the course of his career, serving as the musical director.
With no prior knowledge of Spring Awakening’s plot, I watched the events that transpired on the satisfyingly minimalist stage of Swirnow Theater with a constant sense of surprise. Based on a 19th-century play, Spring Awakening starts off as a tale of that confusing period in life we all know so well: puberty.
A group of German teenagers attempt to navigate their way around the daunting questions surrounding sex, love, faith and life in a time where internet pornography was not there to answer all these questions and more, in both standard and high definition.
The story begins fairly innocuously, a simple tale of innocence lost, but it quickly turns into something else entirely. Without spoilers, let us just say that the family-friendly title does not tell the whole story and — mother of God — do things go from zero to a hundred really quickly. Suffice it to say that I choked up, and the last time I cried at anything fictional was when I was 10.
The characters in Spring Awakening are relatable and sympathetic. They all fulfill certain aspects of the teenage experience that anyone who attended middle school can certainly relate to.
The male lead is Melchior Gabor (played by senior Brad Bowers), an intellectual and possibly nihilistic rebel who seeks liberation from an oppressive regime of Teutonic parental and religious authoritarianism.
Also, his name sounds like some sort of Portuguese candy bar. Alongside Melchior is his best friend Moritz Stiefel (freshman Sebastian Durfee), a nervous and aloof young man who is struggling with his budding sexuality.
With Melchior and Moritz are their classmates Georg Zirschnitz (junior Daniel Akinbolue), Otto Lämmermeier (freshman Carver Bain), Ernst Röbel (freshman Nick Xitco), Hänschen Rilow (junior Ian Stark) and Bobby Maler (sophomore Brice Messenger).
While technically supporting characters, none of these boys function as mere filler. They all have a certain degree of depth to them that contributes to the awkward and relatable theme of growing up in a world of uncertainty– and getting erections in very inappropriate situations.
The leading woman is Wendla Bergman (played by junior Emily Su), a naïve but curious and strong girl who tentatively seeks out adulthood. Unlike Melchior Gabor, her name is fairly normal and thus I cannot offer a joke here. Sorry for letting you down. With Wendla are her friends Martha Bessell (Hopkins freshman Maya Singh Sharkey), Thea (Hopkins freshman Sydney Thomas), and Anna (Hopkins sophomore Octavia Fitzmaurice), all of whom are seeking the truths of adulthood and are attempting to cope with their at times incredibly tragic lives. The outlying female character is Ilse Neumann (Hopkins junior Allie Zito), a childhood friend of Moritz who forsakes the high-collar Protestant culture of her abusive home and settles instead in an artists’ colony. Ilse seems to represent what opportunities lay off of the beaten path, but also the tragedies of uncertainty.
Interestingly, all the adult characters are played by one actor and one actress, in this case Hopkins graduate student Scott Albert and junior Elizabeth Winkelhoff. This created a nice effect because it transformed the adults from individuals into more of a collective force that exists in opposition to the more well-defined young characters.
Indeed, all of the older figures in the play share certain traits which manifest themselves as an obstacle to the development of the ensemble of young heroes and heroines.
Frankly, the entire cast was good. I had never been to a Barnstormers show before, so I was approaching this blindly, but every cast-member shone regardless of whether they were a lead or part of the ensemble. The leads Bowers and Su were great, but they also did not completely steal the show, which is a good thing as few stories without an array of substantial and interesting characters are worth hearing.
For me, Durfee’s Stiefel was particularly excellent; he powerfully evoked in both song and performance the tragic innocence that the character seemed to exemplify.
Musically, one could describe Spring Awakening as a “rock musical”–Wikipedia does–but it is not exactly Quadrophenia. Certainly, rock is an integral aspect of the show’s music–all of which was composed by Duncan Sheik, but it also relies heavily on string instruments. Regardless, the music was good and ranged from tragic ballads like “Mama Who Bore Me” to defiant numbers like “Totally Fucked.” Both Bowers and Su took to the music well, leading with energy and charisma. The ensemble was a force of its own both as a backdrop for Wendla and Melchior’s personal numbers and in their own.
I wish I could publish my notes from the show, but they are essentially just the ramblings of a madman. However, they do express in the simplest of short-handed terms that I honestly really enjoyed it. The production was nothing if not impressive and the story itself was compelling–in the sense that it effectively switched between droll comedy and abyss-embracing tragedy.
Spring Awakening will be running until April 16. I would highly recommend suspending your anti-social tendencies and near-crippling academic fears for an evening and seeing it.