Theater Review: ‘Spring Awakening’ rocks Pomona stage

Kristina Bugante
Editor in Chief

Stomping and frustrated German teens in wild haircuts, Doc Martens and 19th-century garb wailed their hearts out to a contemporary score in Pomona College’s rocking production of “Spring Awakening,” which ran Nov. 20-23 at Seaver Theatre in Claremont.

“Spring Awakening,” a rock musical that premiered on Broadway in 2006, is based off the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. The play was understandably controversial at its time and was banned, as it dealt with issues such as sexuality, rape, abortion, suicide and child abuse. Michael Mayer, director of the Broadway production, and lyricist Steven Sater wanted to bring the gripping play to life, and brought in Duncan Sheik to compose its alternative, rock-n-roll score and Bill T. Jones to add modern choreography to highlight the timeless issues of the otherwise century-old play. “Spring Awakening” saw a successful three-year run on Broadway, winning numerous awards, including nine Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy Award.

“Spring Awakening” was performed all across the country and all over the world and brought forth various interpretations of Sater’s award-winning book. Pomona College’s production, directed and choreographed by Giovanni Ortega, was nothing short of innovative — a fresh, captivating and emotional interpretation that managed to stay true to the original Broadway production and the original play but brought the musical to the next level thanks to Ortega’s direction.

“Spring Awakening” is set in Germany 1891 and follows the stories of a group of teenagers who deal with the tumultuous ramifications of sexuality in an oppressive society. A naive and innocent Wendla (Mary Lyon Kamitaki) pressures her mother (Sarah Lopez) to tell her where babies really come from, but she is denied information. Wendla, frustrated yet curious about the changes in her body and mind, becomes fascinated with the bright and precocious Melchior (David Leathers), whose knowledge spans well beyond his age and generation. Moritz (Jun Park) is just as confused about puberty as Wendla but is even more affected and frustrated by it. He looks to Melchior as a source of why he is plagued by erotic dreams of “sky blue stockings hanging over the lecture podium.” At the same time Moritz deals with the pressure of succeeding in school by his strict father (King-Edqux Robinson), and Melchior, who bears a progressive mindset, is frustrated with the shame and oppression that is generated by the education system.

Though the musical takes place over a century ago, the audience is pulled to the present day with an electric score and interpretive, thought-provoking lyrics. One of the prime examples of how Ortega paralleled modernity with the 19th-century mindset was in the musical number “My Junk,” a fun, catchy song that explores teenage love and fantasy. Wendla and her group of girlfriends giggle about the boys in town, while the humorous Hanschen (Harrison Goodall) masturbates over an erotic postcard and a jumpy Georg (Evan Fenner) lusts over his busty piano teacher (aptly named Fraulein Grossenbustenhalter, and is played also by Lopez) during his piano lesson. Although the three situations are completely separate, the female ensemble sneakily looks over at Hanschen as he touches himself during his desperate monologue in his bathroom. Hanschen’s father (played also by Robinson) knocks on the door numerous times, interrupting Hanschen’s “coming bliss” and causes the girls to immediately turn around in shock. As Hanschen goes back to his monologue, the girls carefully look back at him. This interaction was fun, funny and a little naughty and highlighted the girls’ playful curiosity.

Ortega perfectly executed the most controversial scenes of the musical: the beating and sex scenes between Melchior and Wendla. Even in the most professional productions, the scenes are difficult to interpret and execute. Wendla, frozen with shock after discovering her friend Martha (Katie Marcus Reker) is beaten by her father, asks Melchior to hit her with a stick after claiming that she has “never felt anything.” Melchior is hesitant at first, but eventually succumbs and ends up hurting Wendla more than they both anticipated. This scene is usually met with awkward laughter from the audience, but in this production they were left shocked and silent. Ortega and Leathers found a balance for Melchior that demonstrated what the scene is really about: not humor or awkwardness, but about aggression, dominance, sexual frustration and masochism.

Ortega’s direction of the sex scene was also daring and strayed from Mayer’s interpretation. In the Broadway production the interaction between Melchior and Wendla is slightly romantic and more consensual than the stark rape scene Wedekind wrote in the original play. Though in this production, Wendla is a lot more hesitant and Melchior is more forceful. What appeared to be a normal sex scene to the naive eye actually implicated aspects of rape and left the audience more bothered by Melchior’s dominance.

Although all of the musical numbers were strong (the band was world class, and the musical supervisor was Kristen Lee Rosenfeld, who also worked with the national tour cast), the ensemble numbers particularly stood out. In “Touch Me” most of the ensemble appeared in their long underwear, proclaiming their desire and curiosity for physical intimacy. “Totally F***ed” was a rocking and energetic number where cast members jumped off the stage and sang “Blah blah blah” to the audiences’ faces, emphasizing the devil-may-care and “f**k you” attitude from the kids. The show’s rousing finale “Song of Purple Summer” truly showcased the vocal capabilities of the entire ensemble. Each part was casted perfectly.

Leathers portrayed Melchior with true leading man capabilities. Kamitaki did not infantilize Wendla — she played her with the pure innocence of a 14-year-old, not a 4-year-old. Park’s intense yet spazzy Moritz left you heartbroken at his downfall. Katie Cohelan’s portrayal of the carefree, elusive and bohemian Ilse was reinforced by her willowy yet strong vocals. Robinson and Lopez showcased their diverse talents as the numerous Adult Male and Female roles and created a hilarious sexual tension between Herr Knochenbruch and Fraulein Knuppeldick, the headmasters of the boys’ school.

Opening night had some sound issues, but that did not overshadow the electricity of the production. Ortega’s innovation, the cast members’ on point portrayals, the gorgeous set, lighting and costumes, and the energetic band were akin to a professional production that deserved to run for at least another month than rather just one weekend.

Kristina Bugante can be reached at kristina.bugante@laverne.edu.

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