Spring Awakening blossoms at Shea's 710
Historical musical highlights contemporary issues through rock music
MusicalFare’s “Spring Awakening” takes place in 19th-century Germany, but it tells a story that resonates with modern audiences.
The energetic rock musical about teen sexuality takes place in the repressive Victorian-era rural Germany and earned the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2007. “Spring Awakening” explores themes such as homosexuality, masturbation, child abuse, abortion and suicide. The production is staged in Shea’s 710, a smaller venue than Shea’s main stage.
The story details the sexual awakening of five teenagers and is based off of an 1891 German play of the same name. The original work was widely banned and censored for its explicit depiction of teen sexuality.
The musical version brings new life to the century-old play with modern rock music that illuminates the inner monologues of troubled teens. The characters express their inner angst with turbulent, rousing numbers like “The B*tch of Living” and “Totally F*cked.”
The intimate setting of Shea’s 710 was ideal for the emotional show, and the cast uses this setting to its advantage by performing in the aisles beside the audience.
Emily Yancey’s character Martha sings a song called “The Dark I Know Well,” a number that details the sexual abuse the character experiences from her father. Yancey describes it as the “Me Too” song of the production, and said she hopes audience members will grasp the connection with the modern-day social movement. Director Randall Kramer intentionally had the female cast members stand in a line at the front of the stage to highlight the oppression women continue to face, according to Yancey.
UB alum Leah Berst drew connections between “Spring Awakening” and the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The song “Left Behind” illustrates the pain felt by those left behind after someone dies.
“There are so many people going through that same thing right now,” Berst said. “It is a story that’s so important to tell.”
Later in the performance, the Parkland connection becomes overt. While the cast performed the show-stopping “Totally F*cked,” they pulled out pieces of chalk and etched Parkland related messages like “Never Again” and “kids are dying” onto the stage.
Patrick Cameron’s standout performance as the emotionally troubled Moritz highlights the pressures teenagers face and the intense anxiety that comes along with these pressures. With nervous, fidgeting mannerisms and anguished vocals, Cameron powerfully portrays Moritz’s mental breakdown that ultimately leads to the character’s suicide. Teen suicide is a sensitive topic, but Cameron approaches it with nuance and genuine emotion.
In “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” a duet between Moritz and the character Ilse, Cameron’s vocals sound like a howling winter wind, reflecting Moritz’s pained mental state. His performance is beautifully juxtaposed with Arianne Davidow’s stunningly warm alto.
Berst is reprising her role as Wendla, whom she portrayed in UB’s production of “Spring Awakening” in 2015. Berst was 19 the last time she played the character. Now 22, she said she brings more maturity and a deeper understanding of the character to the role.
Her familiarity with the character and acting growth showed in the performance. With a powerful soprano, Berst brings Wendla to life and makes the 19th-century character accessible for a modern generation, portraying intense topics like teen sexuality and abortion with tremendous grace and maturity.
Her passion for the role is palpable, particularly in her stunning rendition of “Whispering” that is on par with the original Broadway version of the song performed by Lea Michele, who was nominated for a Drama Desk award for her role in 2007. Berst doesn’t just sing notes and speak lines — her performance tells a story. It’s no surprise that Wendla is among Berst’s favorite roles.
“I could do this production my whole life and be happy,” Berst said.
Despite the production’s controversial nature, Nick Stevens, who portrays the male lead, Melchior, does not think the show is edgy just to create a shock factor. He believes “Spring Awakening” tells a powerful, honest and timely story.
“[Spring Awakening] is not attempting to push buttons,” Stevens said. “It’s about bringing truth to a moment that needs it.”
“Spring Awakening” opened March 8 and will run through March 18 at Shea’s 710 Theatre. Discounted student tickets are available.