Set in Germany in the late 19th century, “Spring Awakening” kicked off Wittenberg’s 2019-2020 theatre lineup with a discussion on society, sexuality and burgeoning adulthood. The production offers fun, lively musical numbers, excellent student performances and interesting directional choices, but falters in its shoe-horning of a half-dozen subplots that muddy the waters of the musical’s central message.
“Spring Awakening” follows a group of young teens in Germany at the tail end of the 19th century. The boys are struggling through their school work, and the girls are being taught classical women’s roles, fully enforcing the strict, archaic gender and social norms of the era. Both groups, though, are struggling not only with their narrow roles in their narrow society, but with the difficulties of growing up in such a strict environment. Love, sex, sexuality and creativity is all but banned.
Melchior, helmed by Caleb Beck (’20), is the exception to the rule: he is a free-thinking, atheistic bad boy who has his own handle on his reality. His rebellious nature guides the musical’s narrative as he disrupts and upends the narrow, razor-thin lives of the characters around him.
“Spring Awakening” discusses suicide, depression, abuse, school stress, sexuality and sex. Most of all, though, the musical is a commentary on society and the way that it carves narrow paths for people based not on individuality, but on irrelevant traits like gender and perceived intelligence. The narrative hints at the fact that our society still functions in this manner; the extreme nature of 19th-century German society only serves to display an extreme example of such social selectivism.
The narrative also explores several sub-plots, including child abuse, gay romance and suicide. It is here, though, that “Spring Awakening” gets lost in itself: the core societal message often feels muddied and lost amidst the half-dozen sub-plots that the narrative explores. Furthermore, these narratives did relatively little to advance either the plot or the overall message of the production- they seemed only to bolster the runtime and number of song and dance numbers.
While the plot and message felt shaky, the production and performances supporting the narrative were anything but. The production’s 19 musical numbers each offered a break from the reality of the performance, setting themselves aside from the world of the characters with rock-based instrumentals and modern, relaxed and often coarse language.
The set, while incredibly simple, was mobile and easily re-purposable to create new locations. Props like chairs were used as rocks, trees, and even coffins, allowing the actors to create an entire world with only a handful of props.
The production was bolstered most by riveting performances from Beck, Taylor Oberschlake (’20) and Drake Kobler (’21). Beck and Oberschlake exercised their vocal capabilities with numerous solos in “Spring Awakening’s” musical numbers, and Kobler once again displayed his booming, commanding on-stage presence. Closing the first act, Beck and Oberschlake shared an intense, albeit disconcerting, sex scene which they sold to the audience perfectly. Neither actor missed a step during any of their shared scenes, but shined even brighter during their own song and dance numbers.
Supporting roles from Joshua Goble ’20, whose own solo performances were impressive and lively, and Matt Akers ’22, who very humorously mimed masturbation during a song about the difficulties of being young. In truth, every student performance was excellent; the students’ dedication to the craft shined perfectly through.
Overall, “Spring Awakening” is a well-executed first outing for Wittenberg’s 2019-2020 theatre department. The production, performances and adherence to the source material were exceedingly enjoyable, even if the source material itself was less than desirable.