BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at Chameleon Theatre Circle:
A raucous musical full of heart that finds its light in the quiet moments.
I first saw a production of Spring Awakening in my hometown when I was in high school --- it fueled a lifetime passion for the 8-time Tony Award-Winning folk-rock musical. Chameleon Theatre Circle's production, directed by Jay Gilman, manages to stay true to the legacy of the original while also adding its own fresh take to make it all the more relevant.
Spring Awakening focuses on the lives of teenagers in late 1800's Germany --- and deals with heavy topics such as violence and abuse, censorship, sexuality and mental health. With books and lyrics from Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the musical is based on a 19th century German play of the same name.
And as you can tell from the heavy topics it's dealing with, it's still painstakingly relevant to the society we live in today. The audience on a Thursday evening show was packed to the brim and was one of the youngest audiences I've seen in the Twin Cities in a long time. This show manages to deal with just about every controversial topic that parents, teachers and society don't want to discuss with teenagers. And maybe after seeing the show, people will understand the true harm that does.
Lydia Wagner as Wendla is quietly affecting - she always seems to have a wistful look in her eyes, giving sympathy to a girl that starts out her journey so naïve. Henry Ellen Sansone brings a haunting liveliness and dedication to the role of Moritz --- his stage presence sells the part above and beyond, despite a lesser singing range than some others. Benjamin Rubenstein, who plays Melchior, manages to bring both a smarmy confidence that lends way to unbelievable heartbreak later on.
The sets are simple but clean and beautiful. The emphasis is on the actors and the roles. Many characters also play an instrument in at least one song. There's a few motifs that distract from the production, but the details and the actors' dedication more than makes up for it --- use of a microphone, for example, meant to likely illustrate the innermost thoughts of a character, but just confuses the audience, since all the actors have mics anyway.
A detail that shouldn't go unnoticed is the intricate detailing of censored letters and writings on the costumes of nearly all of the characters at some point in the show. It's a beautiful detail that adds a lot to what may appear at the beginning to be a very simple set --- it's actually much more than it seems on the surface. Kind of like Spring Awakening itself - more than what it may seem.
The fact that Moritz is played by a transgender actor also brings a new angle to the show when it comes to showing how society treats teenagers, particularly those who are LGBTQ. When he attempts to fit into society's narrative, Moritz fumbles and finds that no one really understands what he's going through. I think to the ever-harrowing statistics around mental health among transgender individuals across all parts of the U.S. today, and that makes Moritz's journey and arc all the more heartbreaking to watch unfold.
All of the adults in the town are played by only two actors - one man and one woman. Switching between the roles is quick and sometimes is confusing who is who at what moment, but the artistic choice is important. It's to illustrate how even though their morals or ethics or beliefs may change, between the parents and schoolteachers, it's all just the same to the teenagers.
The themes may feel too heavy for teenagers to understand, but that's the point of Spring Awakening - it enthralls you into controversial topics and doesn't let go. As I looked around the room after the show was over, I could see a similar glean in the eyes of a few teenage patrons - the same realization I had when stumbling upon this show years ago. 'Finally,' they may think. 'A show that actually understands me.'
Chameleon Theatre Circle
June 7 - 30, 2019
Gremlin Theatre - Vandalia Tower
550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul, MN 55114
Tickets and more information: www.chameleontheatre.org