Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING

Bursting with youthful energy and fiery angst, EWP's latest is an admirable, multi-racial new So. Cal. revival.

By: Nov. 15, 2023
Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING

My handful of long-time readers and followers might glean from my past reviews and social media posts that the 2006 Broadway musical SPRING AWAKENING—the recipient of the Tony Award of Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score as well as the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album—is one of my all-time favorite stage musicals, and so I almost always jump at any given chance to see productions of the show whenever I can.

My extensive affections for the show run fairly deep, but it is mostly rooted in the musical's unexpectedly poetic, beautifully-orchestrated alt-rock-and-strings score crafted by lyricist/book writer Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik, which I first heard upon the release of its original cast album—long before I would ever see the show on an actual stage (I was lucky enough to finally catch the show during the opening weekend of its First National Tour launch in San Diego in the Summer of 2008).

Even better, this show's gorgeous, hypnotically tuneful music is thoughtfully paired with an angst-filled, hormonally-heightened narrative that is based on playwright Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 German play of the same name, which follows a group of naive, late-19th Century teenagers who are seen trying their best to navigate their budding, adolescence-triggered sexual awakenings, all while living in a conservative, ultra-restrictive world dictated by adult tyranny and intentional misinformation.

Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING
Mia Sempertegui and Thomas Winter. Photo by Jenny Graham.

In their “protected” bubble, these confused, impressionable teens are not allowed much critical thought against the status quo nor have the audacity for personal self expression. Barred from the awkward truths regarding what is happening to their minds and bodies, these young folks fumble and crash through their growing pains via emotional outbursts expressed in song.

What is ultimately intriguing and clever about this 21st Century stage musical adaptation of Wedekind's play is that it provides an engaging narrative hybrid, setting the action and its citizens' cadence within the same time period as was depicted in the original play, but then also amping up its modern sensibilities by utilizing a rock-tinged score with hyper-aware lyrics—offering a palpable connection between what the confused teens suffered two centuries ago and what the confused teens are likely suffering through today.

While the musical's subject matter on the surface almost feels too heavy and esoteric, SPRING AWAKENING is actually quite relatable, particularly for those in the audience (regardless of age) who, through the course of the musical's run-time, come to care for the welfare of these young, impressionably innocent teens. After all, in the grand scheme of things, these collection of characters just wants to experience love, albeit in its most giddy, often physical form without having to endure shame, guilt, or consequence.

For East West Player's admirable, hyper-kinetic new production—which has now been extended to run through December 3, 2023 at the David Henry Hwang Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles—an added extra layer of welcome noticeable newness has been included into their iteration of SPRING AWAKENING: purposeful diversity.

Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING
Justine Rafael, Madison Grepo, Mia Sempertegui, Leianna Weaver,
and Sarah Marie Hernandez. Photo by Jenny Graham.

As the nation's longest-running Asian American theater company, producing works that feature Asian Americans in key (or all) roles previously or traditionally attributed mostly to non-Asians has been at the top of EWP's agenda, and has remained so since its founding in 1965.

And in EWP's SPRING AWAKENING—helmed with indefatigable frenzy by director Tim Dang—the diversity goes even further, with expanded representations spanning beyond just Asian cast members, reiterating just how wholly universal this musical can truly be: as a show that takes place in the past, but yet can still effectively mirror an emotional resonance that echoes for today.

As the show's actors came forward one by one during one of their recent weekend performances, I was immediately and pleasantly struck by how impactful it was to see a show I have loved for almost two decades be populated this time by many faces and voices that resemble mine… and, better yet, that others in the audience that comprise of varying racial backgrounds are also able to see their own faces represented on stage in this musical.

And to be sure, this embrace of diversity is no mere gimmick—it provides opportunity and instills progress. Thankfully, the cast EWP has assembled to fill these roles is pretty darn impressive in their own right.

Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING
Daniel Blinkoff, Thomas Winter, and Tamlyn Tomita.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

As Melchior Gabor, the smart, charming, revolutionary-minded Big Man on Campus, Thomas Winter has a believable self-assured stature amongst his fellow students, enhanced by a strong, confident singing voice. The lovely sounding Mia Sempertegui is convincingly innocent as Wendla Bergmann, Melchior's beautiful but cursedly naive object of affection (I only wish that her dark-hued costume in blue tones was much lighter and brighter—or, perhaps, just white to emphasize her character's innocence—so she would stand out a bit more and not blend in amongst her other cast members). Her opening "Mama Who Bore Me" vocals were perfect in its delivery and emotion.

Additionally, Marcus Phillips does great work as ultimately tragic ne'er-do-well Moritz Stiefel, Melchior's anxious/melacholy friend whose schoolwork has been suffering lately due to lack of sleep caused by some sexually-charged dreams that haunt him nightly. And, I must say, Madison Grepo's stirring portrait of Ilse Neumann—Moritz's friend from the past who is now essentially a homeless (possibly sexually-abused) runaway—made me tear up, particularly during her hauntingly beautiful vocals on "Blue Wind."

As the sole "adults" in the room, Tamlyn Tomita and Daniel Blinkoff provide memorable turns playing various adult characters—from stern parents to stern educators—who provide brief but often negatively impactful interactions with the show's young characters that, in turn, unleash life-changing consequences.

Though the full ensemble is uniformly great, the female-presenting characters in the cast, by far, do out-sing the boys. I was especially impressed by the singing performances of the amazing Sarah Marie Hernandez, who plays Martha Bessell, one Wendla's friends who reveals a troubling secret shame. Her stunning vocal work on "The Dark I Know Well" (alongside Grepo and Justine Rafael and Leianna Weaver) is just superb.

Also worth noting in the cast is Jaylen Baham as Georg Zirschnitz and James Everts as Otto Lämmermeier, who each provided some excellent vocal riffs on several songs; and Eric Renna and Genki Hall, who earned some giddy laughs during their flirtatious scenes together as the show's only gay characters Hänchen Rilow and Ernst Röbel, respectively.

Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING
Marcus Phillips (center) and the cast of EWP's SPRING AWAKENING.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

But beyond the show's acting troupe, there's also plenty of praise to go around with the production itself.

Preston Mui's expressive choreography keeps the dance numbers dynamic, and with such a small footprint of a set to work with, the movements and staging can, on rare occasions, feel like a chaotic traffic jam—a fitting metaphor for the turbulence of emotions happening for the characters. Shiek's mesmerizing score—elevated by the use of string instruments—sounds awesome coming from the show's house band, here under the baton of music director Marc Macalintal.

JoJo Siu's period costumes are also intriguing: the young women's frocks look like softer-textured siblings to the sharper-edged costumes featured in SIX the Musical, while the boys don dressed-up straight jacket-structured school uniforms that are Eastern European inspired. The concrete slab, church-like set designed by Christopher Scott Murillo reiterates the narrative's 19th-Century oppressive surroundings, but offers surprising modern outlines, corners, and crevices of budding life attempting to peek out.

Technically speaking, my only real gripe with the production is its frequent reliance on some unnecessarily animated LED light strips that flash and “outline” various building shapes within the set—an off-putting, Vegas-like distraction that often took me out of the emotional drama.

Looking back, the previous large-scale production I saw of this musical was the incredible, beautifully-produced Deaf West staging that performed at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills way back in the Summer of 2015, a stunning production that would eventually transfer to Broadway later that fall, earning a well-deserved Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Musical. That production—directed brilliantly by Michael Arden and features some of the most mesmerizing, ASL-inspired movements from choreographer Spencer Liff—has, for me, become (and continues to be) the definitive gold standard of the show, and will likely go down for me as, perhaps, the show's best iteration ever.

That excellent Deaf West production is indeed quite a tough act to follow, but EWP's noteworthy, progressively diverse production is still, overall, a really enjoyable, thoroughly engaging iteration, filled with impressive voices and compelling staging. While it's certainly not a perfect, flawless production, EWP's version of SPRING AWAKENING definitely reminded me why I have loved this show for many years. I appreciated that the production provided surprising new detail discoveries that I do not recall seeing from past versions, making the experience of seeing the show again this time around a special one.

Review: East West Players Presents Energetic SPRING AWAKENING
Madison Grepo and Sarah Marie Hernandez. Photo by Jenny Graham.

At one point, I turned to my friend during intermission and confessed that I have my own personal barometer of whether a SPRING AWAKENING production I am seeing is any good: by whether or not I end up ugly-crying in the second half. Suffice it to say, I definitely found myself wiping away a lot of moisture from my eyes during that second act, starting from the opening notes of "Left Behind" right up until the last phrase of "The Song of Purple Summer." If that's not a flattering sign of a good show, I don't know what is.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos by Jenny Graham, courtesy of East West Players.


Due to overwhelming demand, the East West Players production of SPRING AWAKENING, featuring music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, and directed by Tim Dang, has been extended through December 3, 2023. Tickets available by calling (213) 625-7000 or online at

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