Well, it ain’t about daffodils.
That’s Bob Chapel’s very brief description of “Spring Awakening,” an amazing, multileveled musical currently in production in the Culbreth Theatre.
Chapel, who directed the work, speaks the truth. The show is certainly not about daffodils, but it most definitely is about the birds and the bees and similar euphemisms, like storks.
It’s about the agony of young sexual awakening and adult repression, literally put to music.
The creators of this show, which racked up three Tony Awards (for best musical, book and score) and a Grammy for best musical show album, have built a masterwork on a foundation of ill repute, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name.
Wedekind is considered by many to be a linchpin of German Expressionist theater as represented by, among others, Bertolt Brecht, who acknowledged his own debt to Wedekind.
But Wedekind was a prophet without honor. “Spring Awakening” initially was banned in Germany, shunted to the side of theater production for 15 years, because it was considered by many as pornographic for its open references to puberty, sexual abuse, homosexuality and abortion. When it was produced, it was heavily censored.
The masterful blending of that play with the 21st century, in the form of Steven Sater’s book and lyrics and Duncan Sheik’s score, is an old story told in a powerful new way.
This is Wedekin’s 1891 story, set in 19th-century Germany. It’s a story of a girl asking questions her mother won’t answer; a boy, almost a young man, who has found the answers in books; and another young man, tortured by fantasies and abandoned by the adults in his life.
But the music, the songs, are 21st century through and through. Actors pull microphones out of pockets, whipping us to the present, and sing about what is really going on in their characters’ minds. This is a masterful blending of today and yesterday that shows us that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Yet there remains an undercurrent of hope.
In some very basic ways, “Spring Awakening” is not unlike other semi-controversial coming-of-age musicals, such as “Hair’ in the ’60s. Growing up is hard; figuring out what to do with sexuality is very hard — even today, when it seems to surround young people. And living under the thumbs and rules of the adults in their lives can be even harder.
The University of Virginia Department of Drama production of this is very well done by talented students and, as always, skillfully directed by Chapel. There are clear leading roles, but he wisely has kept this show as a true ensemble production.
The adults in this show are played by only two people, Amy Barrick (who also served as fight captain) and Mitch Voss, who transform themselves from villainous school officials to kindly parents to hypocritical teachers. The two do very well, capturing several characters apiece, and the use of just two actors for multiple adult roles is a powerful way of saying that, in most ways, to most kids, all adults are the same. Transformations can be tricky; Barrick and Voss do them very well.
Emma Lord is believably innocent as Wendla, the girl who, as the show opens, begs her mother for the truth without getting it. She gives us an innocent but troubled “good girl,” lost in the traps of misinformation, and her voice carries some very difficult numbers.
Daniel Prillaman’s acting as Melchior, the smart boy who has found his own information about life, is very well done, as are his musical numbers. His voice occasionally is a bit nasal, but he carries the songs.
The harder male role here may be that of Moritz, the repressed daydreamer who can’t seem to please the adults, and who is so conflicted that he becomes lost. Kelly Snow plays the character a little too externally and a little too young; it’s as though he hasn’t yet found the boy’s heart. Yet all that fades when he grabs a microphone. His acting when he sings — which he does very well — far outshines what he does without song. Yet it still works.
All of these students do remarkably well; as Chapel has noted, this is a show close to the experience of college students, and it likely will find a home on many campuses. And Chapel is expert at blending varied levels of skill into ensembles that work, and he has done that here, with the help of choreographer Ali Stoner.
The music in this show deserves every award it has won. It’s a combination of rock and a sort of folk, melodic and meaningful and often angry, but never annoying. Without a good, solid musical foundation, the show would founder.
Fortunately, music director Greg Harris knows how to build a solid musical foundation. With only five other musicians, and Duncan Sheik’s orchestrations, Harris really pulls this show together musically, giving the student actors a consistently strong backing for their challenging roles — and giving the audience something worth listening to in its own right.
AnnMarie Milazzo’s vocal arrangements also contribute strongly; the ensemble numbers are powerful and rich.
Kathryn E. Springman’s simple set blends masterfully with Jake Kvanbeck’s beautiful lighting design — the two really are inseparable, with a slight mist as part of both. The effect onstage is breathtaking, no doubt helped along number of new lighting instruments in the Culbreth.
In fact, the Culbreth has had more than just a facelift. New audience seating is sleek and comfortable, and the additional opportunities for lighting designers no doubt will enrich every production to come.
“Spring Awakening” is not for those who would be disturbed by frank mention of things sexual, nor for those easily offended by language. In the case of one song, “Totally F—,” that word really is the best word for the situation.
But there is nothing unnecessary or gratuitous here, and the idea of the show may well be nothing less than revolutionary. The many awards clearly were deserved, and this production of it is well worth seeing.
University of Virginia Department of Drama
$16, $14, $10 students