When I first heard about Spring Awakening, I thought of benign, sunny meadows full of blossoming flowers with some schoolchildren skipping through. Little did I know that the play is about schoolchildren’s sexual blossoming rather than their cavorting in a blooming field of flowers. I might have been far off, but the surprise made seeing the Risley Theatre production of Spring Awakening even more enjoyable.
The rock musical is based on a book by Steven Sater, who also wrote the lyrics to accompany the play’s music. Set in Germany in 1891, Spring Awakening’s story is that of a group of teenagers in the midst of puberty. Different characters are shown struggling to deal with issues such as the oppressive education system (and society at large), domestic abuse, parental expectations and, most importantly, their transforming bodies and burgeoning sexualities.
This particular production of Spring Awakening is directed by Rebecca Saber ’18 and features a cast of 16 students from both Cornell and Ithaca College; in addition to the actors, there are six musicians in the pit. According to the director’s note, Saber was drawn to Spring Awakening’s story because, despite the fact that it’s set in the late-19th century, it deals with issues like sex, abuse, abortion, suicide and homosexuality, which are still immediately and poignantly relevant to modern teens.
The director’s note also points out that all of Spring Awakening’s adult characters — parents, teachers, doctors — are played by the same two actors (I.C. student, Cameron Mitchell and Amber Hillhouse ‘16 in this production). While at first confusing, this choice is intended to reflect how, according to Rebecca, “teenagers often view adult figures as a single dominating force imposing rules rather than serving as a support system.” After I finally realized why the same people were playing so many different characters, I thought this was a compelling choice that really shifted the audience’s focus to where it is intended to be: the teenagers.
But let’s talk about the performance. Spring Awakening has quite a bit of movement — many songs feature a full cast onstage dancing, or at least moving around. Notably, the choreography is not from the original production, but rather it is original choreography by I.C. student, Chelsea Rance. I thought the scenes in which the actors are onstage yet not part of the main action greatly benefitted from having the extra movement. Instead of drawing attention away from the actors speaking or singing, the dancers complemented what was going on around them and added interesting visuals. The few instances of “actual” dancing, when every cast member onstage was dancing the same choreography, could have been better executed, but I did watch a rehearsal, after all.
As this is a musical, the vocals were crucial, and I was not disappointed. Having seen Risley’s Next to Normal last semester, I heard a few familiar voices in the cast.Brendan Jacob Smith and Robin Mazer, freshman musical theatre majors at Ithaca College, played the two main characters, Melchior and Wendla, respectively. Both have awesome voices, but when they sang together, I was captivated. Their harmony was simply incredible. All of the others had great voices as well; each character seemed to have their own solo at some point or another, and this certainly allowed the cast to shine. The last number, “The Song of Purple Summer,” features everybody singing together, and it was nothing short of stunning. In fact, if I had one complaint about the last number, it would be that it’s much too short for my liking.
All things considered, the greatest strength of this production of Spring Awakening was undoubtedly the acting. The play touches on a slew of difficult topics, and the actors brought the right seriousness to the heaviest scenes — truly doing them justice. On the other side of the coin, they also brought the airy innocence of the schoolchildren they were playing. The girls, Wendla (Robin Mazer), Martha (Lucy Gladstone), Thea (Lauren Rexach), Anna (Lauren Hunt) and sometimes Ilse (Juliet Kimble) had an excellent dynamic in their scenes together, both giggly and grave. The boys, Melchior (Brendan Jacob Smith), Moritz (Matthew Skrovan), Hanschen (Jacob Stuckelman), Ernst (Ben Fleischer), Georg (Andy Gonzalez) and Otto (Gavin Tice), also worked well together, each embodying the simultaneous nerves and pomp of pubescent schoolboys. Without exception, the cast has great chemistry and talent.
Yet a few pairings stood out more than the rest. Like I mentioned before, Mazer and Smith sing wonderfully together, and this compatibility carries over into their acting. The scenes between Melchior (Smith) and Wendla (Mazer) are some of the most emotional (and also, ahem, revealing — parental advisory recommended, indeed). No matter what’s happening, Smith and Mazer portray it convincingly and exceedingly well. Similarly, the scenes between Melchior and Moritz (Matthew Skrovan) were a joy to watch. But of course, many of the most powerful and dramatic scenes involved only one actor, the biggest moments given to Melchior, Wendla and Moritz. And each, without fail, pulled off their heavy moments with chilling, heartbreaking solemnity.
All in all, the cast of Risley Theatre’s Spring Awakening rose to the challenges and demands of the play and gave an entertaining, poignant, and inspiring performance. It was a joy to watch, and I think the cast and crew can rest easy knowing that their hard work is about to really pay off.
Spring Awakening will be performed at May 5 and 6 at 8 p.m., and May 8 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m at Risley Theatre.
Natalie Tsay is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].