In 2006, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s controversial musical “Spring Awakening” helped bring alt-rock to Broadway with its loud, furious score and tragic story about the effects of Puritanical values on teenagers in 1891 Germany.
The musical is based on Frank Wedekind’s angry, angst-ridden play, first performed in 1906, which concerns teens being kept in the dark about their own sexuality, a topic that resulted in it being banned for decades due to its frank content.
In producing the show for Youth Musical Theatre, director Raymond Saar and his wife, musical director Diane Ketchie, toned down both the story and the music in an excellent production that was staged at Agoura High School from July 26 to 29.
Using a cast of college students from as far away as New York as well as local high school seniors, Saar and Ketchie’s production does much to bring out the beauty of the show, softening the head-banging, ear-splitting score and reimagining the show’s more graphic scenes. The result is one of the more tasteful, haunting and often-lyrical renderings of the musical we’ve seen.
In “Spring Awakening,” parents and authority figures are to blame for not educating teenagers about sex, resulting in tragedy for two of its characters: one by suicide and the other by a botched abortion.
In light of today’s political climate, with the threat of the Roe v. Wade decision being overturned, “Spring Awakening” has a new relevance that resonates with audiences.
Saar and technical director Kurt Schwarz chose a stark, monochromatic look for the show, with its characters dressed in drab shades of black, white, gray and brown. A skeletal set heightens the feeling of despair, which is enhanced by effective, shadowy lighting.
Unlike Broadway’s punk-like orchestrations, Ketchie’s small rock quintet is almost chamberlike in its simplicity, bringing out the haunting beauty of songs such as “Blue Wind” and “Whispering.”
Saar double-cast the show, with Saturday afternoon’s ensemble led by Christopher Reilly as the rebellious Melchior. He is superb as he decries the “parentocracy” in what is the show’s most revealing and cynical song, “All That’s Known.”
After his best friend, Moritz, is chastised for misquoting a line from “Virgil,” Melchior sings “All they say is ‘trust in what is written.’ / Wars are made, and somehow that is wisdom / Thought is suspect and money is their idol / And nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their Bible.”
Lulu Mack is wonderful as Wendla, a naive young girl who is just learning about her sexuality and pleads with her mother to tell about the facts of life.
Wendla has never been permitted to “feel anything,” including the pain of her friend Martha, who is physically abused by her parents. Wendla forces Melchior to beat her with a switch so she can experience pain, one of many disquieting and disturbing moments in the play.
Griffen Hamilton plays Moritz, who is tormented by his parents to succeed in school but can’t stand up to the pressure. We know immediately that Moritz is different from his classmates by Hamilton’s effective portrayal as the nervous, agitated youngster, complete with random facial tics.
Saar deals with Melchior and Wendla’s notoriously graphic love-making scene at the end of Act 1 in a (thankfully) tasteful manner. Despite its shocking themes, “Spring Awakening” delivers meaningful messages about educating our children as they reach their formative years.
The show included exemplary performances by Karis Brizendine (Ilse), Shane Munson (Martha), Joseph Solmor (Hanschen) and Jackson Manhan (Ernest). Andrea and Stephanie Hamilton provided the effective costumes, while Hannah Hamermesh designed the impressive choreography on the ensemble numbers