When doe-eyed, innocent youth meet sexual awakening, the result is combustion manifested in one high-octane performance: “Spring Awakening.” Though this passion was aptly realized by a spirited cast, the choice to relocate the setting of the narrative was not as clearly successful.
The Columbia Musical Theatre Society presented “Spring Awakening” from Dec. 6 to 8 in the Glicker-Milstein Theatre. The musical is based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. The CMTS adaptation was directed by Madeline Ducharme, BC ’19, and produced by Deena Zucker, BC ’19, with choreographer Yasmine Kaya, BC ’19, and dramaturge Genevieve Henderson, BC ’19.
“Spring Awakening” is defined by teenage angst and sexual discovery, juxtaposing alternative rock and (in its originating form) late 19th-century provincial Germany. Students with varying levels of naïveté, including the sheltered Wendla, played by Ilana Woldenberg, BC ’20, the troubled Moritz, played by Lulu Cerone, CC ’21, and the erudite Melchior, played by Jackson Wylder, CC ’21, lead anguished, entangled journeys of self-discovery and rebellion. These agitated youth struggle to cope under the strict, leering eye of overbearing adult figures, the varied roles played exclusively by Isabel Moneloa Daly, BC ’19, and Harry Singh, CC ’20.
As the production is known for its intense themes and displays, Ducharme drew from Intimacy Directors International and various on-campus support systems to ensure a safe environment for actors as they navigated these difficult scenes.
Vocal peaks included the stunningly soft opening number “Mamma Who Bore Me,” performed by Woldenberg as Wendla, imploring to an unhearing mother to bequeath her sexual understanding and knowledge of her body. “Touch Me” paired stoic pensivity with desperate wanting while the contrary “Bitch of Living,” an impassioned cry from the male student class, was realized choreographically with distinct angst.
In “Totally Fucked,” a climactic number in which repression erupts into frenzied, chaotic indifference, each character’s vocals and choreography punch passionately in a seemingly discordant but gloriously wild synchronization.
The varied collection of teens was performed with both vigor and sincerity by a skilled cast. Cerone was a marvelous, tortured Moritz, and Wylder and Woldenberg as Wendla and Melchior supplemented with fractured, pained chemistry—Woldenberg’s radiant vocals often supported Wylder’s. The leading trio provided tangible emotionality in all facets of their performances.
Supporting student figures completed the electric ensemble. Maura Ward, BC ’21, provided touching, luminous melodies as the wayfaring artiste Ilse, and Nate Jones, CC ’22, was delightfully comic as a sporadic scene-stealer Georg. The compassionate reprise of “The Word of Your Body” between Ernst, played by Jackson Davis, CC ’22, and Hanschen, played by David Ehmke, CC ’20, was portrayed with graceful, romantic quietude and provided a soft respite from the drama’s relentless Act II melancholy.
An admirable inclusion to the spirited team was last-minute replacement music director Megan Trach, BC ’20. Her first time conducting, Trach led a spirited orchestra and even chimed in vocally to herald in the cast with a “one, two, three!” in “Totally Fucked.”
Though the show is overtly morose, the most shattering moment arose from a decision by director Ducharme to clothe ghostly figures Wendla and Moritz in garb signifying their horrific demises, rather than dressing them in typical all-white purity. While Moritz’s soldier garb was somewhat difficult for audiences to directly comprehend, Wendla’s bloody nightgown was a brilliantly appalling image that reckoned with both her needless demise and the pertinent issues of female governance over their own bodies.
However, most flawed was the overall adaptive nature of this production. This “awakening” was dislocated from its original German provincial setting to New York City in the 1960s. The fear of a lost education was amplified by the fear of being drafted in the war. Sexual angst was at its height, exacerbated by the detonation of rock and roll counterculture and a tangible erotic air.
The proximity of New York City probably seemed a tantalizing point of focus to New York-bound creatives. But this temporal designation negates the blatant recognition that this city, especially in the ’60s, was culturally vibrant and saturated with revolution. This proves antithetical to the staggering degrees of sheltered-ness and sexual ignorance by which our young central figures are defined. Rather, the original setting of antiquated Germany paired with sexual frenzy provides a more attractive clash: the themes and modern music clash pleasingly with a time period marked by a comprehensively suffocating public recognition of sex.
Even more disconcerting was the lack of total commitment to the ’60s placement, only evident through the smattering of buttons of Melchior’s jacket, burned draft notices strung from the rafters, and Wendla and Melchior’s trysts resituated in Central Park, stone bridge and boulder setpieces replacing deep forests and hidden haylofts.
Unfortunately as licensing agreements forced the script to remain unchanged, character names still remained glaringly Germanic, as well as certain speech and specific phrases. Audiences had to suspend their disbelief, choosing either to personally commit to the ’60s perspective or negate the few visual adjustments and remain situated in the original temporal locale.
But the show wasn’t “Totally Fucked,” per se: Vibrant vocals from a robust ensemble, biting poignancy realized in the tale’s most notorious moments of misery, and generally acute casting consummated the performance as a mournfully comic, emotionally resonant experience. Certainly, it left one toe-tapping to classic, well-executed hits long after departure.