I first saw “Spring Awakening” during its initial run the summer I graduated high school, a time when the lyric “the thing you makes you really jump is that the weirdest sh*t is still to come” spoke to me with scary authenticity. The second time was earlier this month when I saw Deaf West’s gorgeous reinterpretation on Broadway (which you can read about here) and, in some odd twist of fate, exactly a week after that I found myself seated at my alma mater, Quinnipiac University (QU), seeing it for a third time. While it isn’t my aim to compare productions at all, I will say that both proved a beautiful and stark contrast. While Deaf West reinvented the musical, adding layers of new meaning and interpretation, Quinnipiac stripped “Spring Awakening” down to its 19th century undies. Told on a bare stage and with the most straightforward staging, QU’s “Spring Awakening” reminded me how strong the very bones of the material is.
For those uninitiated, “Spring Awakening” follows a group of teenagers in 1890s Germany. Melchior (Aidan Wright), a freethinking student, longs for the days when boys and girls can attend school together and sex isn’t shamefully taboo. His friend Moritz (a twitchy Ryan Sheehan, all but unrecognizable from “Servant of 2 Masters”) confides in him about the haunting visions of naked ladies that populate his dreams, prompting Melchior to write an illustrated handbook on human sexuality. Also discovering his sexuality is classmate Hanschen (a hilarious, scene-stealing Alex DeNoncour, looking more than a little like Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton), both in the privacy of his bathroom and with crush Ernst (Louis Napolitano, making the most of a small role). On the girls’ side, naive Wendla (Olivia Bartolomei) struggles to make sense of the adult world creeping up around her, whether that be her attraction to Melchoir, understanding how her new baby niece was conceived or trying to get in the mind of her ritualistically abused friend Martha (Yara Farahman, whose compelling “Dark I Know Well” was a highlight).
While “Spring Awakening” has never been a show that employs a flashy production, QU’s version is simpler that most. The intimate Buckman Theater was basically untouched, with most scenes utilizing a few props (some chairs, a table) in front of a half-open red curtain, with Emily Seibert’s shadow-filled lighting creating much-needed texture. The direction, too, by James Noble was simple and effective, if not a touch too reliant on Michael Mayer’s original staging. Here were many of the stage pictures I remember from the OBC, a majority of Bill T. Jones’ quirky choreography (which, oddly enough, uses a series of hand gestures not unlike American Sign Language) and the use of on-stage mics. While the staging works (Meyers won a Tony for his work, for God’s sake), there seemed to be some missed opportunities to give Quinnipiac’s “Spring Awakening” its own unique identity.
The originality to be found onstage was in the performances, all terrifically handled by Noble. Bartolomei’s mature voice and more womanly physique beautifully contrasted with her childlike and innocent portrayal of Wendla. Sheehan, less rock star than artsy slacker, brought a fresh, quirky take on Moritz that fully worked from his humorous scenes with Melchoir to his heartbreakingly quiet finale. Speaking of Melchior, Aidan Wright unexpectedly serious take on the character, though a bit stiff at times, proved a strong backbone for the show with his strong, nuanced baritone voice. Also doing strong work was waif-like Gillian Schuldiner as the empty-eyed runaway Ilse and Jenna Gallagher whose take on the interchangeable Adult Woman was refreshing soft and well meaning (although with disastrous results, especially when in cahoots with Gerard Lisella’s acidic Adult Man). Fleshing out the ensemble were Carleigh Peterson, Bailey Malone Kircher, Kaitlin Green, Jennifer Dupre, John Patrick Hogan III and Liam Richards.
The best part of this “Spring Awakening” (and some might argue any production) was the performances of Duncan Sheik’s indie-rock score, which is alternatively sorrowful and head banging. Sheehan and Schuldiner’s “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” was a highlight as was the riotous “Totally F*cked.” But here I must bring up pre-recorded music elephant in the room. While I totally understand its use (there is absolutely no good place for a band, even a small one, on the Buckman stage and managing sound levels is always tricky in such a tight space), it’s very hard for pre-recorded rock music to muster the same kind of dynamic energy that comes from a live band, no matter how much the actors stomp and rock out.
If I may wax personal for the last moment of this review. My senior year at Quinnipiac was bookended by being in two shows. The first “The Trestle At Pope Lick Creek” was about teens growing up in a repressive society and featured abusive parents, burgeoning sexuality and on stage masturbation (sound familiar?). The second – a little-known song-filled adaptation of “Importance of Being Ernest” – was the first time QU had produced a main stage musical in many years. During that whole year, there were a lot of discussions about the future of Quinnipiac Theater, which despite producing strong shows very rarely did musicals or well-known material. This is to say we would have killed to do something like “SA.” Finally seeing such a show at my university made me realize something. No matter how much I’d like to jump on that stage and rock out, I’m now the Adult Man watching a new generation of kids experience something I could only have wished for when I was in their shoes. But that’s OK. I had my Purple Summer at Quinnipiac and, if “Spring Awakening” is any indication the future for the department is startlingly bright, especially if they continue pushing the boundaries with musicals like this.
At the end of this production the children and adult – the past and the future –
stand together and sing about a bright future just around the corner. That, my friends, is the image I’m left with.