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Spring Awakening rocks crowd

A review of UB’s racy, but tasteful student production

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UB students rocked the Center for the Arts stage belting out songs that you won’t find in most other college performances, covering sex, masturbation and “the b*tch of living.” 

Spring Awakening opened at the Center for the Arts last week and continues its performances this weekend. If you haven’t yet caught this talented group of students stomping, singing and moving through the struggles of adolescence – you should.

The annual spring musical opened on April 23 and is presented by the UB Department of Theatre and Dance. Students from different areas of the department worked together to put on the award-winning musical Spring Awakening. Nathan Matthews directed UB’s strong production of the rock musical. The show will have its final performance May 3. For fans of other rock musicals like Rent or Next To Normal, this show is a must-see.

Matthews and company picked the right cast to fulfill the show’s challenging roles. Each character – from “sad, soulful sleepyhead” Moritz Stiefel to the rebellious Melchior Gabor. Those male leads commanded the stage with their defiance against the social construct of their 1980s German town through loud and expressive music. Their female counterparts captured the innocence of naïve teenagers, giggling and gossiping about the other boys and girls in town.

As it’s written, the show contains dark and controversial themes. It was slightly unnerving to watch a group of college students embody characters that are depressed, suicidal, and abused both emotionally and sexually.

Wendla (Leah Berst, a sophomore music theater major) lives in a community that shelters the youth from the truth and reality of sex and sexual desires. She sings “My Junk” – a song about what it’s like to have a crush – with her classmates to express their desires for the boys they are coming of age with.

While they struggle to understand their strange dreams about women, the two male leads Melchior and Moritz (William Hin, a freshman exercise science major and Sean Ryan, a junior music theater major, respectively) express their sexual frustration and lack of knowledge by singing “The B*tch of Living,” a high-energy crowd pleaser.

The song – which sits in juxtaposition to the girls’ “My Junk” – shows the sexual frustrations of teenagers, as emphasized by the explosive choreography. And this group of guys could dance. The choreography wasn’t designed for a show choir, but rather expressive teenage rock stars.

Act one stayed relatively light with the characters exploring mild curiosity about sex until it is revealed that Martha (Amanda Joy Schwartz, a junior music theater major) faces physical and sexual abuse by her father. She shares an emotional duet with Ilse (Bailey Humiston, a junior musical theater major) who was in a similar situation but left her home to avoid the abuse. “The Dark I Know Well” was wrought with emotion from both actresses, so much so that Schwartz was in angry tears by the end of the final note.

Meanwhile, Wendla and Melchior begin to explore their relationship. They let themselves give into their sexual desires while the rest of the cast stands around to sing “I Believe.”

What is made unclear is whether Wendla gives her consent to Melchior – an ambiguity that different productions of the play chose to either harp on or leave to audience interpretation. Wendla, due to her sheltered life, doesn’t actually understand sex, unlike the unruly Melchior.

The simulated sex scene, as well as other uncensored elements of the play, is what sets UB’s show apart from others that have been performed on college campuses. Some student productions of the show choose to censor different elements. The UB production decided to keep the performance as written. It was the right choice as to not compromise the integrity of the show. Instead, there will be talkbacks after the April 30 and May 1 shows to discuss what was shown in the play.

Act two of the play is where the threads that hold characters together begin to fray and break. While Wendla and Moritz are assumed to be the center of attention, it was Moritz that gripped the audience. After failing out of school and being beat by his father, Moritz’ uses “And Then There Were None” to express his pain. Ryan’s rendition of this song was so compelling that it should have produced tears and goosebumps to anyone watching. His emotion was raw and everyone felt it.

“They’re not my home, not anymore / Not like they so were before / Still I’ll split and they’ll like / Well, who knows? Who knows? Who knows?”

Wendla ends up pregnant from her rendezvous with Melchior, finally understanding how children are conceived. The most emotion and innocence Berst could have mustered was shown when she was being dragged off for her abortion. Her screams echoed in audience’s ears after the lights went out – you wanted to comfort her like her mother should have.

The audience was able to relate to the cast as it sang the popular song “Totally F*cked,” because it’s about being in a situation seemingly impossible to face, or fix (it may also be the perfect song to add to your finals week stress playlist).

The song simulated a high school dance with the semi-random dance moves and the lovely “Blah, blah, blah, blah” that we all hear from teachers sometimes.

With death plaguing the characters, those who are left must now learn to grieve. Their performances switch from a curious, childlike perception of the world to accepting and taking what life gives them one step at a time, together.

The theater was filled with friends and family of the cast, many carrying flowers and gifts of congratulations.

After the show, Berst felt a great amount of reprieve.

“I’m relieved that opening night is behind us, and now I’m excited for what’s to come,” Berst said.

Opening night is almost like a dress rehearsal, except you get audience reactions with the performance. If the applause and standing ovation at the end of the show was any indication, Berst and the rest of the cast did everything right.

Bridget and Heather Humiston were there to see their daughter and niece respectively, Bailey Humiston, who played Ilse. Both were extremely pleased with the show. Neither had seen the show before but both had a positive experience.

“I knew the story beforehand,” Bridget said. “But I have never seen it performed before.”

Those who did not know any of the show’s content beforehand may have been hit with the shock factor, but it was well worth it. The entire cast and production staff took what is a racy and controversial show and made sure it was tastefully done while still being exciting and relatable. Ryan and Berst were the show’s clear standouts, pouring themselves into every line and note.

Spring Awakening explores all sides of sex and relationships – the beauty, pleasure, pain and abusive nature. Despite the fact that the musical is set in 1891, based off a play from that period, the story is timeless.

Rebecca Vincent is a staff writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com


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