Teen pregnancy, abortion, sexual violence, child abuse, suicide — sadly, these are all relevant topics to today’s young people. But who was talking about such things among teenagers more than 100 years ago in provincial Germany?
Frank Wedekind wrote the play Spring Awakening in 1892, dramatizing the trials and tribulations of teens in a small German town. It was banned in Germany for some time because of its no-holds-barred presentation of such taboo material. In 2006, it debuted on Broadway as a rock musical of the same name, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics and book by Steven Sater, winning multiple Tony Awards in 2007.
Out of the Box Theatre Company embarks on its third season with this offering, under the direction of its founder and artistic director, Samantha Eve. While the subject matter is dark, the songs are surprisingly catchy, and the cast brings great dedication and charisma to their performances. With Reefer Madness, Hair, Assassins and Evil Dead under their belts, OOTB has emerged as a company that doesn’t shy away from edgy content, though it often is tempered with a comic twist.
What is surprising is the nearly unchanged significance of these subjects to today’s teenagers. While access to knowledge, one of the obstacles these characters face, is not a problem today, the current glut of information has clearly not done away with teen angst, confusion or passion. Even Melchior, best-informed about life’s mysteries among his peers, doesn’t have a happy ending. Just a warning — hardly anyone does in this story.
The surreal effect of characters occasionally stepping out of their 1892 lives in small-town Europe and belting rock anthems is unexpectedly effective, embodying the enduring impact of these issues today with timeless teenage heartbreak, bewilderment and rage.
As Melchior, William Schneiderman is sure and solid, anchoring the cast. Daniel Russell, as his good friend Moritz, brings just the right blend of pathos and puppy-dog enthusiasm to the role. Quinlan Fitzgerald portrays Wendla, questing to finally feel something in life, with a beautiful singing voice and strong acting skills.
As Martha, Maggie Langhorne sinks her teeth into a small but impassioned role as a girl with a dark family secret, joining in an intense and anguished duet with Eve, who plays Ilse, a girl whose life is on its way to ruin in a similar way.
The haunting, moody lighting and set design by Ted Dolas creates an appropriate setting for the drab lives of the characters and allows for good contrast during the flashier numbers. The five-piece band, artfully arranged onstage and directed by Mandee Sikich, creates a professional sound and adds polish to the production.
An interesting effect is created by three ensemble members, wearing street clothes, who come out of the audience to join in many of the musical numbers. Perhaps meant to emphasize the universality of subject matter, this technique does convincingly further blur the lines between past history and modern life.
This kind of innovation is not a surprise from this fresh and energetic company. And in the finale, when the entire cast, led by Ilse, sings reverently “The Song of Purple Summer,” they convey a satisfying sense of life moving forward, into a new season. And perhaps, with just a little bit of hope.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.