BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at University Of Texas At Austin Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve
Well, they've done it again. The students of Austin have delivered another knockout production of SPRING AWAKENING. First was Saint Edward's University, and now the University of Texas at Austin. After reviewing SPRING AWAKENING back in April, I jumped at the chance to see it again. I was moved, enraptured, and utterly delighted by UT's production and I was not alone. As the audience shuffled from their seats in a buzzing post-show daze, I smiled at the effusive praise tumbling from their lips.
SPRING AWAKENING strutted onto Broadway in December 2010 to critical acclaim. Duncan Sheik's rock infused score coupled with Steven Sater's sumptuously abstract lyrics led the musical to eight Tony Awards as well. Based on the controversial 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, SPRING AWAKENING is a rebellious foot stomping ode to the complications of puberty, crushing societal pressure, and the dangers of repression in the name of morality.
SPRING AWAKENING centers around a group of teenagers in late 19th-century Germany. Main protagonist Wendla's inquiries about human sexuality go answered by her mother, leaving Wendla in a state of dangerous innocence. Perpetually nervous Moritz fights back wet dreams and impossible academic standards while self-assured Melchior finds himself between childhood and manhood, unprepared for either. These three characters, along their classmates, desperately turn to each other for comfort and connection, with dangerous results.
Director Anna Skidis Vargas' production captures the angst and excitement of these burgeoning changes with emotionally explosive musical numbers in which there's no question in the audience's mind about how the characters feel. Lack of subtlety is a dangerous choice to make, but Vargas understands that the emotions and urges the characters experience refuse subtlety or concealment, so why play it like they don't?
Each frustratingly talented actor draws from pure emotion to fuel their performances. Jeremiah Abdullah is an effervescent Melchior while Savanna Cole plays Wendla with a beautiful innocence and wistfulness. UT's production also draws much of its strength from the supporting cast including standouts Hayden Daniel Cox as the nefariously charming Hanschen and Lea Donnenberg as the enigmatic Ilse.
The production's inconsistency proves to be its only weakness. Certain numbers felt overproduced, which stemmed mostly from the overuse of projected images on the walls during certain songs. Though these images emphasize what's being sung, they are unnecessary and ultimately distract from the performances. Conversely, a couple musical numbers felt underproduced, like blocking was forgotten about so the actors simply stood there and sang.
However, the strength of the production as a whole outweighs these weaker moments. This production is a great example of staying truthful to the material yet making it wholly your own through costume and production design. Costume designer Stephanie Mae Fisher's enchanting use of layering, knitwear, and lace accoutrements brought an unmistakably bohemian feel to the characters, in stark contrast to the unassuming costumes in the original Broadway production.
I know the phrase "feels more relevant today than ever" but I truly believe that about SPRING AWAKENING. It examines anxiety, academic pressure, abuse, and suicide. It reminds the younger generation to fight for their seat at the table, and that they hold the key to a better future. UT's production is luminous, hilarious, and raw. It reminds us too, to wear our hearts on our sleeves. For as Shakespeare wrote in The Taming of the Shrew. "My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it, will break."
Photo Credit: Thomas Allison, Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin
November 06 - November 24, 2019
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at the University of Texas at Austin
300 East 23rd Street
Austin, TX, 78712