Last night, senior staffers Betsy Ladyzhets and Sarah Harty had the privilege of attending the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s production of Spring Awakening, a musical about sexual repression gone horribly wrong. The CMTS production was intense, confusing, beautiful, and powerful in equal measures.
The doors and programs of the Columbia Musical Theater Society’s production of Spring Awakening are tacked with a content warning, one repeated aloud by director Maddy Ducharme, BC ‘19, before the show. This musical depicts a variety of disturbing events, including sexual violence, interpersonal violence, and suicide, all painted as the results of teenagers being forced to repress their desires by parental pressures, religion, and shame. If we do not give our children the freedom to feel, the show argues, they will destroy themselves. CMTS’ production painted this destruction in vivid colors, yet failed to make a clear statement on the broader purpose of social responsibility suggested by its program notes.
Spring Awakening demonstrates the dangers of a community dominated by strict Christian values and repression. Children are not allowed to ask questions, stray outside their rigid gender roles, or disobey their parents. And they are not allowed to even think about having sex. Melchior Gabor (Jackson Kienitz, CC ‘21), the top student at his Catholic school, has some problems with these restrictions: he has learned to navigate the female anatomy from reading Goethe, and wants to impart his sexual education to the rest of his class. Melchior shares this knowledge first with Moritz Stiefel (Lulu Cerone, CC ‘21), his less-scholarly best friend, then with Wendla Bergmann (Ilana Woldenberg, BC ‘20), a childhood friend-turned-love interest who has been kept so in the dark by her mother that she does not even understand where babies come from. These characters all strive to be free of societal pressures, but are ultimately doomed by their parents’ continued policing and by their own uncontrollable emotions.
Except for some technical issues with the piano and the lights, and one wrong entrance, the show went quite smoothly. The cast of Spring Awakening gave amazing performances, both among the leads and supporting actors. Woldenberg’s Wendla sang beautifully, evoking her character’s innocence and desperation to know more about the world in which she lives. Cerone’s Mortiz was a standout, embodying teen angst and more with fidgety movements and intense, manic energy. And although he struggled with the rhythm and intonation of a few songs, Kienitz’s Melchior showcased excellent character growth as he went from “that guy in your CC class who keeps talking about Nietzsche” to a more emotionally complicated, sympathetic character.
The staging of this production brought the full ensemble into almost every scene, showing off the voices of all the talented cast members. Talia Hankin, CC ‘22, and Maura Ward, BC ‘21, were particularly notable as Martha and Ilse, respectively: their incredible singing and acting made “The Dark I Know Well” haunting and powerful. Isabel Moncloa Daly (BC ‘19) also gave a memorable performance as multiple teachers and all three main characters’ mothers. Punctuated by a rotating cast of sweaters and blazers, she went from a caring optimist in one scene, to a hardened disciplinarian in the next, to a horny piano teacher in one hilarious moment.
David Ehmcke, CC ‘20, was a clear audience favorite as Hanschen, a gay student who is not even remotely ashamed of his sexuality. His exaggerated acting was hilarious; highlights included his masturbation during “My Junk” and his dialogue with Ernst (Jackson Davis, CC ‘22) during their reprise of “The Word of Your Body.” Hanschen and Ernst serve as a lighthearted, more comic parallel to Melchior and Wendla’s more intense romance. However, in a production which was dedicated to queer and trans youth, their heightened comical acting felt out of place. The script itself may have lacked a nuanced or original look at queer relationships, but unfortunately, this production didn’t do much to deepen it.
The choreography (by Yasmine Kaya, BC ‘19) was high-octane throughout the show. In some songs, this effectively brought out the intense emotions of the characters: Regimented dancing that resembled soldiers doing drills during “All That’s Known”, when contrasted with more manic jumping during “The Bitch of Living”, showcased the divide between the boys’ restrictive educations and their wild desires. “Totally Fucked” started with Melchior on trial, standing beneath two teachers perched on a staircase, then devolved into a full-ensemble number that was manic and insane in an intensely cathartic way. But the choreography was also unnecessarily energetic in some slower numbers, such as “The Mirror-Blue Night”. Here, the actors’ movements across the stage distracted from the power of their singing.
The main failure of Spring Awakening was its setting change, from Germany in the 1890s to New York City circa 1968. This sounds promising – the agitation of the decade mirroring the teenagers’ internal and external conflicts – but it failed to deliver on any emotion other than confusion. From the beginning, it didn’t seem like there was much that brought the story into modern times, with the set being fairly standard and the costumes not particularly evocative of any era at all (apart from some pins on Melchior’s jacket). No changes were made to the script, so up until the last quarter of the show, you’re just wondering why all these kids have German names. The only change that truly brought the show into its new setting was the appearance of Moritz’ ghost in an army uniform, reminding the audience that hey, there’s actually a war going on. Likening Moritz’ suicide from depression and his parents’ pressure to the death of a Vietnam soldier felt strange and inappropriate at best, and disrespectful at worst. Parallels could have been made between Vietnam-era America and the intense militarism of the German Empire, but they just weren’t there.
Likewise, some of the plot points didn’t really stick to their new wall: Wendla’s story revolves around her complete ignorance of sex, but in a post-Griswold v. Connecticut and Playboy world, this didn’t seem as plausible. Ilse is supposed to be an outcast relegated to an artists’ cult, on the fringes of society, but in the time of Woodstock and the Summer of Love, she doesn’t seem that out of place. Even moving the show to the suburbs, where the silent majority ruled, would have more effectively communicated the repressive society under which the teenagers lived. But setting it in New York City, the very center of 1960s American activism and counterculture, just makes you wonder: did these kids ever, like, go outside?
The setting of the play determines its message: Are we supposed to embrace the times or fight back against them? Are the reactionary parents solely to blame for their children’s tragedy, or did the free-love activism of the 60’s also fail them? What does that tell us about our present attitudes towards sex? Unfortunately, this production does not provide a clear answer.
Still, CMTS’ Spring Awakening is an showcase of amazing student talent in acting, choreography, and music. It’s worth seeing if you’ve ever been a teenager at any time, which is everyone who’s of an appropriate age to watch it.
Spring Awakening is playing at 8 pm on Friday, December 7 and at 2 pm and 8 pm on Saturday, December 8. It is sold out, but the waitlist opens up one hour before the show.
yeah he’s fucked alright via Guest Writer Sophie Tobin