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BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at Baldwin Wallace Musical Theater Program

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SPRING AWAKENING confronts not only a powerful script, but the challenge of producing “live” theatre in a world-wide plague


In 2012, when Baldwin Wallace's number one nationally ranked musical theater program, in conjunction with Beck Center for the Arts, produced SPRING AWAKENING, my capsule judgement read: "SPRING AWAKENING is an emotionally stirring, relevant, and well-staged production."

My comments about the two Broadway productions of the show, and the Key Bank Touring version of the script also were peppered with positive comments.

This is a powerful piece of dramatic musical theater!

SPRING AWAKENING, the dramatic Steven Sater (book and lyrics)-Duncan Sheik (music), folk-infused rock music drama, is based on an 1892 play by German author Frank Wedekind.

The subject matter, which centers on teenagers on the road to self-discovery, portrays abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. It was so controversial that its original source was banned for public view for over one-hundred years.

The play is an indictment of late 19th century Germany, where strict rules regarding right and wrong, and wide-spread hypocrisy were rampant. Sex wasn't discussed, the reasons for actions weren't revealed, and adults held strict control. It is relevant to modern day Americans where the religious and political right parallels the machinations of the adults and attitudes toward modernity in Wedekind's script.

The play consists mainly of spoken and sung dialogues among the children, with an interspersing of verbalizations of the adults.

The author has given the voices the ability to open our eyes, in gripping ways, to the joys and sorrows, hopes and despair, and struggles and the resulting tragedies. Tragedies in which the most promising children are sacrificed due to a lack of appreciation and understanding from their teachers and parents, and the closed-minded attitudes brought about by unthinking and unbending people.

We meet Melchior, intelligent and charismatic, who sees the corruption around him, but is powerless to change the events.

There is Moritz, physically strong but psychologically frail. He's the product of a harsh father, and is pushed to near insanity when he fails a rigged exam and eventually is led to suicide.

Wendla is in love with Melchior, and naively becomes pregnant by him. Her fall from grace is based on her lack of knowledge about human sexuality, still believing that "children are brought by storks" and are only the product of the married. She, too, becomes a tragic product of her culture's rules regarding abortion and the absolute control by parents.

We also view Ilse, who runs away from a sexually abusive home, another throw-away product of adult rules of the game of life.

We are left at the end of the epic with Melchior, his friends all destroyed, needing to find a reason to go on with his life.

This is a relevant play that should open the eyes of the hypocritically blind to the need for sex education, understanding of the teenage mind, religious and political hypocrisy, and the idiocy of developing unbending rules for the sake of tradition.

Victoria Bussert, the multi award-winning director of Baldwin Wallace's musical theatre program, has in the past been confronted with many problems in producing plays-snow storms, cast members illnesses that stopped them from going on for a performance, parents pulling their son out of a play because they didn't agree with the role he was playing, to name a few. But probably none of the barriers were as daunting as putting on this edition of SPRING AWAKENING in the midst of a pandemic.

As brilliantly described by Andrea Simakis, in her "Masked and Raging, Ohio Students Make a 'Spring Awakening'" (https://www.americantheatre.org/2020/11/16/masked-and-raging-ohio-students-make-a-spring-awakening/), Bussert, and her staff-Matthew Webb (Music Director and photographer) and Gregg Daniels (choreographer)--had to follow all the Covid-19 health regulations, find over 40 different settings for the staging, overcome calls to the police by a citizen who reported seeing "a boy with purple hair, in a mask, in a park, holding a gun," as well as dealing with how to produce scenes containing kissing, hand-holding and sex acts without allowing the actors to unmask and remain six-feet part.

Added to the complexity was the need to double-cast each major part so that the students could satisfy the staff's obligation to give each of the evolving thespians a chance to hone their skills.

(Note: The following comments are made about the Moritz Cast, which I saw streamed on November 20. They were again seen on the 22nd. The Wendla Cast performed on 11/19 and 21st.)

From Wendla's opening song (Audrey Hare's "Mamma Who Bore Me"), the concept of the script and the quality of the performances, are exposed. The petite and lovely Hare exhibits a strong voice and a tenderness that makes her impending destruction heart breaking. Her rendition of "Whispering" is haunting.

Wendla's mother, and all of the adult female roles are well-performed by Laura Welsh Berg, a BW grad and the Great Lakes Theater's Artistic Associate.

We find Melchior (Eric Siegle), Moritz (Steven Huynh), Hanschen (Nick Cortazzo), Ernst (Andrew Nelin) and the boys of the town in class, powerless and cowed by a tyrannical teacher (Lynn Robert Berg, of Great Lakes Theater, who effectively plays all of the adult males).

The plight of these young men is pictured as one in which they will have little control over their lives or thoughts. They will be verbally and physically beaten and harassed into becoming "productive" and obedient citizens of society. Choice, option and personal ideas are of no value here, which is clearly expressed in the powerful proclamation, "The Bitch of Living." It is creatively staged, as are all of the dance numbers, by choreographer Greg Daniels.

Melchior, bright and determined, is nicely portrayed by Siegle, whose strong voice is well displayed in "Totally Fucked" and the haunting "Left Behind."

The sexual aspects of the play include not only the drive for heterosexual sexual acting-out, but also homosexual pent-up frustration in Henchen and Ernst's coming of awareness. The scene is nicely developed by the handsome Cortazzo and the shy Andrew Nelin.

One of the strongest portrayals is that by Allison Winkel, as Ilse, the product of incest, whose "Blue Wind" and the show's closing number, "The Song of Purple Summer," were vocally and emotionally well-interpreted.

The BW production is not without issues. The actors, who are faced with doing interactive scenes without their partners not in the same environment, sometimes do not interact, just act as if they are doing solos. Scenes which require intimacy, such as the sex scene between Melchior and Wendla, is somewhat sterile as the duo are divided by a visual screen line. What should be a revealing scene of homosexual "seduction" is marred by the participants limited to finger touching at a six-foot distance and no kissing or body contact. These are problems mainly caused by technology, not lack of talent.

Capsule Judgment: Victoria Bussert and her BWU crew and cast avoided, as one of the songs from "SPRING AWAKENING" states, being "Totally Fucked" and took on the Covid-19 challenge, developing a thought-provoking production which turned out to be the first collegiate pandemic production of the script and further recognition of the college's program. Bravo!


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