By Eva Phillips
It is unsurprising that Goethe makes an appearance, in the beautiful yet eviscerating coming-of-age musical Spring Awakening. After all, the inimitable musical, with music by Duncan Sheik and book by Steven Sater, was adapted from an 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, and the musical unflinchingly explores the sexual and emotional epiphanies of a group of teens in a draconian school in end of the 19th Century Germany—so Goethe references make sense. But it is the connotations that are implicit in the Goethe reference that are the most striking given the context of the story. Goethe’s Faust (which is the text carried by Spring Awakening’s troubled intellect, Melchior) of course was vilipended for promoting hedonism, feckless sexual behavior, transcendentalism, and satanic dabbling. But it is sophomore work, The Sorrows of Young Werther, that earned Goethe his darkest reputation after a rash of deaths by suicide of young men was blamed solely on an infatuation with the book and its glamorization of troubled artists driven to the depths of despair and suicide.
The controversy surrounding Goethe and all that it represents—an older generation castigating and oppressing the confusion, distress, and general method of expression of a younger out of fear of losing control—is at the heart of Spring Awakening, and is viscerally evoked throughout Comtra Theatre’s impressive adaptation. Directed by Cody Larko, Comtra’s Spring Awakening is meticulously true to the original while cementing itself as profoundly its own production.
The story, without revealing too much for those who are unfamiliar with the show, explores the dynamics, traumas, desires, and coping mechanisms of a group of teenagers—specifically focusing on Melchior Gabor (Ian C. Olson), his black sheep best friend Moritz (Ryan Wagner), and his romantic interest Wendla (Victoria Buchtan)—as they navigate overwhelming sexual desires, romantic frustrations, the insatiable demands of school and parents, sexual and physical abuse, and severe depression. They must, of course, navigate all this in a world governed by puritanical perfectionism imposed by parents and teachers, and a culture that enforces silence and shame rather than disseminating information of any sort. Not only is failure anathema in the teens unforgiving Germanic world, but discussion, questioning, and gaining a sense of self is explicitly forbidden.
This tension is exquisitely evoked by the passionate cast of Spring Awakening as they fabulously convey the snarling attitude and desperation of the rock opera. Furthermore, the cast, guided by the careful and thoughtful direction of Larko, manage to portray the teens maturity and striking insightfulness while being ever-aware that they are, in fact, still very much teens.
The young performers tasked with playing Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz are well-suited to be the locus of much of the anguish, disillusionment, and growth of Spring Awakening. As the conscience of the show, so to speak, Ian C. Olson shines as Melchior, perfectly capturing the volatility and anguish of being too smart for your own good, yet being hopelessly unable to master or comprehend the burgeoning impulses, desires, aggression and fear of growing up. As Wendla, Victoria Buchtan is not only vocally breathtaking (her stellar performances on the opening number “Mama Who Bore Me,” and “Whispering” are haunting testaments to her talents), but intensely relatable. Buchtan is as sweet and idyllic as she is clever and astutely vulnerable, and her subtlety as an actor is particularly moving in her depiction of the various ways girls and women are controlled and destroyed. Ryan Wagner’s Moritz is the epitome of the modern, punk-rock tragic hero. He effortlessly blends delirious exuberance in moments of sexual confusion and hilarious freneticism with blistering sadness and self-loathing, and his performance devastatingly articulates the horrible ramifications wrought by an unfeeling world.
It should absolutely be noted that the entire cast of Comtra’s Spring Awakening is deserves wild praise for going above and beyond expectations in this production. Brady Patsy is, as always, phenomenal, representing the cruel and curmudgeonly patriarchal figures that cast a darkness on the teens. Sabina May is consummate scene-stealer as Martha, and she astonishingly handles one of the most troubling and difficult moments of the musical (“The Dark I Know Well”) with stunning mastery. Connor McNelis, too, is utterly irresistible as the charmingly cocky Hanschen, and his chemistry with the wonderful Palmer Masciola (Ernst) is blissfully great to watch. The cast’s extraordinary performances are paired excellently with Choreographer Zakk Manella’s skillful coordination, Buchtan’s work as Dance Captain, and Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre’s finesse as Fight Choreographer—their efforts to execute phenomenal choreography and movement throughout the show were a tremendous success.
Comtra’s Spring Awakening is, all at once, devastating, comical, exhilarating and sobering. Like the legacy of Goethe and the original play, Comtra’s production exposes the vilification of knowledge and questioning that continues to plague generational divides to this day. And, much like Goethe, this Spring Awakening shows the grossness, peculiarities, excitement, and “the bitch of living” that every teen knows so damn well. The music is unbeatable and the performances are unforgettable, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss this production of Spring Awakening.
(Note: Spring Awakening deals directly with suicide, incest, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and reproductive trauma that may be triggering for some audience members.)
Spring Awakening runs through August 17th at Comtra Theatre. For tickets and more, visit Comtra’s site.
Categories: Archived Reviews