A Parent’s Review
Dear mom or dad of a teen:
If your little darling was the sixth grader with a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, or the 11-year-old who inadvertently stumbled upon low-octane porn sites every other time he was in front of a monitor, you should see Spring Awakening – if for no other reason than to let the aforementioned little darling know that YOU are fully aware of what goes on in the mind (and other important parts!) of a young person…
But don’t get me wrong — there are lots of other reasons to see Spring Awakening.
This rock musical from Virginia Repertory Theater (formerly Barksdale and Theatre IV) and directed by Chase Kniffen, is fully loaded, edgy, and sexually charged. It will make your mind race, your imagination run wild, and it might make you feel a little, well—uncomfortable. But more importantly, it is an extremely creative and mostly innocuous introduction to serious subject matter: emerging sexuality, sexual abuse, abortion, teen suicide, masturbation, and homosexuality. No biggie, really. These are the kinds of subjects that are handled with regularity in poorly written and cheaply produced coming-of-age movies on the big screen all summer long. But unlike what you might see in a typical PG-13 movie, the topics aren’t handled with raunchy humor, but with tender sensitivity. It’s this tender and artistic presentation that should serve as a springboard to important dialogue with the teen in the seat next to you.
Based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind and set in nineteenth-century Germany, the students at an all-boys school and the girl townies are the players in this haunting and electrifying production. Two adult actors, Daniel Moore and Susan Sanford, rotate through the non-teen cast members, alternately portraying relevant parents and the heads of the school. Throughout the production, the teens emerge from their nineteenth century personas to grab a microphone and express themselves through song, a folk-infused indie rock score written by Steve Sater and Duncan Sheik. (Yes, he was the guy who did “Barely Breathing” in 1996.)
The stage is sparse, but projected images on a screen serve as an apt and artistic backdrop. The teen leads, Oliver Houser as charismatic and progressive Melchior, and Ali Thibodeau as the tragically naïve Wendla, are very effective and engaging. “The Word of Your Body” struck me as a particularly powerful duet from this pair. My pick, however, for most dynamic performance would have to be Christie Jackson’s portrayal of Ilse, a carefree Bohemian runaway who circles back to interact with the friends of her early childhood. Listen for “The Dark I Know Well” in the first act and see if you agree.
In the angst-packed second act, the song that gets the nod for best ensemble number in Spring Awakening (at least in my book) has a title that’s not fit to print. But it was clearly inserted here to lighten things up, if only for a few minutes. Still, for all its gravitas, the play ends on an upbeat note with a message of hope.
Virginia Rep’s Spring Awakening mates a catchy musical with a modern rock concert and adds a thorough exploration of emerging sexuality to spice things up. The show is intriguing, full of energy, and marvelous to watch. Onstage at November Theater, the production is Virginia Rep’s first under its new banner and proof positive – according to this theater lover and mother of teens at least, that the professional theater company will not shy away from innovative projects. This is good news for Richmond and good news for parents who recognize value in talking to their teens.
Reviewed by Karen Schwartzkopf
A Teen’s Review
I walked into November Theater with only slight apprehension, confident that Spring Awakening would not present any overtly controversial material. After all, the semi-geriatric crowd would not stand for such an avant-garde portrayal of the discovery of sexuality. Surely, these themes would be implied and not divulged frankly.
However, eyes widened and eyebrows raised as the first act displayed blatant sexuality, along with the more disturbing issues of physical abuse and adolescent depression. From a teenage point of view, the musical numbers were a montage of health-class topics presented in a professional manner. The abundance of controversial material would have seemed staged, but the various hardships were dispersed between eleven talented young-adults. From the beginning of the play, the characters begin to stray from the path of the picturesque 1890 child, yet by the resolution had developed wisdom that only comes from the experienced.
I found the musical’s application to my spiritual life, my history class, and the worries of friends and loved ones terrifyingly eye opening, and passionate acting and cathartic vocals only enhanced the effect. While living up to its sixteen and up age recommendation, Spring Awakening is a worthwhile artistic experience for thoughtful and mature appreciators of talent, culture, and the journey to find oneself.
Reviewed by Samantha Schwartzkopf
See RFM’s Spring Awakening event listing.
Utix Deal: High school and college students who purchase tickets with a student ID pay only $15 per ticket. Call box office at 804-282-2620 and show student ID at pick-up.