Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

The Barnstormers presents Spring Awakening, a musical about sexual exploration

By TIMOTHY MCSHEA | April 17, 2023

barnstormers

COURTESY OF TIMOTHY MCSHEA

The Barnstormers put on a performance of the musical Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

This past weekend, theater group the Barnstormers presented Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical Spring Awakening, a modern classic based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind of the same name. The play is set in late-19th-century Germany and follows the sexual awakenings of teenage students in a strict Christian school.

Student Melchior Gabor (Ander Diez) is at the top of his class, memorizing Virgil with ease and studying writers far beyond his age. He is adored by all the female students, who admire his skill but, more importantly, the fact that “he doesn’t care about any of it.” 

He’s a self-described atheist and evidently a free-thinker, as he continually argues with and contests authority. In an early scene with the schoolmaster (Max Readinger) during Latin class, Melchior stands up for his friend Mortiz Stiefel (David Sullivan), who is berated for an improper conjugation. The schoolmaster then beats Melchior, and we learn the main theme of this play: sexual humanity versus authority.

This rebellion against authority pairs well with the rock influences on the score, with some 1950s and 1960s-style ballads and fast-paced dance tunes. In particular, the song that closes Act One, titled “I Believe,” is a Beatles-esque ballad, with slow rhythm guitar and a chanting choral part that speaks to the characters’ hopes for the afterlife as compared to their suppressed lives on Earth.

In an interview with The News-Letter, producer Courtney Carreira discussed the fresh element of the pit orchestra, which featured drummer Jackson Webster, bassist John Alice, guitarist Max Hsu and cellist Chanel Whitehead on stage. 

“We haven't had a pit orchestra in this theater for over 20 years... so it was definitely a technical challenge, but it was something that we really committed to in terms of creating the environment of the show and allowing our actors to really go all the way with the music,” Carreira said.

In an interview with The News-Letter, director Hester Kamin elaborated on the influence of the pit orchestra on the production.

“It makes an incredible difference to have an orchestra, especially when it’s a live rock band with professional musicians... they become part of the show and another character in the show, and that music drives the story forward,” Kamin observed.

As for the themes of the performance, sexual awakening is the main subject: Melchior and Wendla Bergmann (Kayla Sinkler) get sexually involved despite Wendla’s being completely in the dark regarding sex and its purpose. Hänschen Rilow (Mikey Pacitti) and Ernst Röbel (Elliott Petrilla) get romantically involved despite the stigma against homosexual relationships at the time, and Georg Zirschnitz (Eirnin Mahoney) is perpetually entranced by his sexual feelings for his piano teacher. 

The subject of embracing one’s sexuality is never mocked. Instead, the satire mainly centers around the adult authority’s uncomfortable suppression of the teenagers’ natural feelings. For instance, in the first scene with Wendla and her mother (Caroline Colvin), the mother comedically dances around the subject of sex without telling her daughter anything of substance. In contrast, numbers such as “Touch Me” and “My Junk” have soft, solemn melodies with graceful choreography and vibrant, purple lighting. 

The topic of sexuality was not entirely glorified, however, as the realities of sexual abuse were put on full display. One scene in Act One features Martha Bessell (Emerson Davis), who accidentally reveals to her friends the extent to which her father disciplines her, escalating to physical and sexual abuse. In another scene, Moritz accidentally reveals to his father that he has failed out of school, and, in response, the father slaps his son violently in a fit of rage.

Kamin talked about the steps taken to ensure that the actors felt comfortable and conveyed their characters’ feelings properly.

“We worked with a wonderful intimacy choreographer Alexandra Haddad, who led a workshop at the beginning of the process about intimacy, about how to establish a common vocabulary and work with this very delicate subject matter and some of the delicate staging, and Alex was present throughout all the necessary rehearsals,” Kamin said.

Carreira added that the Barnstormers worked to ensure adequate mental health resources were available to the cast, crew and audience.

“We also worked closely with Alyse Campbell, who is with [Health Promotion and Well-Being]... she and her team worked tirelessly to ensure there were mental health resources available to both company members and audience members. We wanted to ensure that our actors were able to grasp this material in a way that was protecting their health and well-being, both as artists and as people,” Carreira said.

If Act One focuses more on the sexual awakenings of the separate teenage characters, Act Two showcases how the authority figures refuse to recognize the negative repercussions of their system.

After Moritz takes his life because of his failure at school and his father’s abuse, the schoolmaster finds the papers Melchior had given the boy, which described and illustrated the anatomy of sex. Instead of looking internally at the pressure society and the school had put upon Moritz, the schoolmaster uses the documents to scapegoat and expel Melchior. 

When it is revealed that Wendla is with child from her encounter with Melchior, instead of blaming herself for
failing to teach her daughter the mechanism of sex, Wendla’s mother scolds her and forces her to get an abortion, which eventually kills her.

These two separate scenes put forth the same message: a hierarchical, intensely strict society that cannot recognize its own implications of death and inhumanity will continue in unchecked ignorance. Suppressing the natural sexual desires of teenagers and intensely pressuring them to succeed within the system can have drastic consequences on their well-being, but these consequences are completely ignored.

Spring Awakening offers an ever-prevalent message during a time where certain prejudices still hold back the freedom of sexual exploration and expression, and it serves as a reminder for the wider Hopkins community. The live instrumentation, strong acting performances and intensely thematic choreography make the Barnstormers’ performance of Spring Awakening a very fresh and gratifying experience.


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