High schoolers impress in the risky ‘Spring Awakening’

“Spring Awakening” is a rock musical that proves teen angst knows no time period.

“Spring Awakening” is a rock musical that proves teen angst knows no time period.

Image By: Photo Courtesy of The Cap Times

Express Yourself! put on its final production of “Spring Awakening” on Saturday night at the Bartell Theater after performing around Wisconsin since the beginning of November.

“Spring Awakening” is a rock musical based on Frank Wedekind’s late 19th-century play of the same name — it proves that teen angst knows no time period. The musical was conceived in the 90s and hit Broadway in 2006 where it won eight Tony Awards, but more importantly, shone a red-hot, sexually-charged spotlight on the previously pristine Broadway stage.

The show’s classical German attire clashes beautifully with the musical’s intense content including suicide, parental abuse, abortion and more, making the performance by Express Yourself!’s mostly high school-aged cast all the more impressive. There were moments so sweet I audibly whimpered and times I realized I was tensing my muscles and holding my breath.

The musical opens with Wendla Bergmann (Isabel Garlough-Shah) grappling with the emotions of her burgeoning sexuality, finding no help from her mother despite her pleads to learn where babies come from. Wendla’s frustration finds company with the other young women in town, which they voice in the song “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise).” Enter Melchoir Gabor (Zachariah Sterner), a well-read radical fed up with the intellectual confines his professor puts on him and his classmates — including Wendla’s personal, yet problematic sexual awakening.

The simple staging allowed each scene to exist in its purest form without the distraction of an elaborate set. The ever-present symbol of a leafy tree cast in light against the black curtain contextualized quieter, less intense scenes and faded to the background during chaotic moments.

The dynamic between the adults and teens in the town follows a Charlie Brown-like structure: the adults were played by the same three actors, spouting uninspired messages of shame and disappointment at the youth, while the teens vocalize their inner turmoil to heavy guitar beats. Fueled by anxiety and most afflicted by the adult shaming, Moritz Stiefel (played by understudy Austin Brummett) makes a confidant out of Melchoir when he tells him about the womanly legs that visit him in his dreams each night to his horror. This is seconded only by his fear of academic failure. Melchoir promises to divulge his sexual expertise to Moritz in essay form — with pictures, though.

Traditional gender roles are perhaps the only social boundaries the musical doesn’t push: the male characters lament over their sexual frustrations and the female characters fantasize about which boy in town might be their someday-hubby.

Director Jenna Carol made the risky choice to cast the actors as close to their character’s ages as possible in order to give them more relatability. “Wise beyond their years” doesn’t begin to cover the maturity the cast approached the show with. Their voices paled slightly during quieter melodies, but their group harmonies and beltier moments raised both energy and goosebumps.

The whole show is steeped in angst, but the act two number “Totally Fucked” was a peak both musically and emotionally. During this number, the whole cast passionately belted expletives prompting cheers from the audience. The song is an eruptive moment of pure pubescence in what is otherwise an unbelievably mature script. As an audience member, it’s tempting to join the cast in singing the flippant mockery of the adults with the perfectly teenaged lyrics: “blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”

The weight of shame grows heavier and heavier on the teens’ shoulders in act two with ultimately dire consequences for three of the main characters.

The show left me with a lot to ponder about the pressure adults burden teenagers with, but it mainly serves as a cautionary tale for the lack of communication and abundance of shame society —both modern and late nineteenth century Germany — places on teenagers. From start to finish, the kids contend with the shame of failing in school, having sex outside of marriage (and liking it), masturbating, experiencing abuse and the shame of homosexuality, just to name a few. After having a horrifying realization of the reality of her situation, Wendla agonizes to her mama, “My God, why didn’t you tell me everything?”

Following the cast’s immensely mature performances, they melted back into their teenage selves with gripping hugs and fat tears streaming down their faces. Watching this family-like cast share their last performance of a play unlike any other they’ll likely perform in as teens rivaled the emotional punch of a well done coming-of-age movie.

In a phone interview, lead Isa Garlough-Shah, who portrayed Wendla, said being part of this production was unlike any other she’s ever acted in. It required intense trust-building among the cast, especially between herself and her partner Zachariah Sterner.

Although the content of Spring Awakening feels anything but safe or comfortable, after the bows Director Jenna Carol said this production was a safe space for the actors at a time when it’s hard to say the same about their high schools.

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