ORLANDO — There’s a tender and humorous moment at the start of “Spring Awakening”, when Wendla Bergmann, an adolescent living in late-nineteenth-century Germany, learns that her older sister has given birth to another child — but rather than excitement, it stirs within her a deep sense of frustration.
So Wendla asks mama the big question — where do babies come from? From mama’s tormented expressions, you’d think Wendla had just asked her mother to explain the intricacies of quantum physics. As Wendla points out, she’s about to become an aunt for the second time, and is getting to that age when she needs to know these things. But her mother isn’t ready for this discussion, and tells her it’s all about a man and a woman loving one another — period.
Mama’s refusal to have a good old-fashioned birds and the bees discussion will have huge repercussions by the end of the play, which is based on a work by Frank Wedekind that dates back to 1891, and which served as a sharp critique of Germany’s sexually oppressive culture. Sexual repression, Wedekind suggests, leads to erotic fantasies and then a whole lot more — and for good measure, his play tosses in child molestation, violent masochism, suicidal thoughts and illegal abortions. Whew!
Not surprisingly, the often overripe melodrama that Wedekind serves up has “period piece” written all over it, especially since so many of his themes would become standard fare for daytime soaps over the years. It’s not fair, in a sense, to criticize a play that probably was radically daring in 1891 for seeming dated by today’s standards, but it is.
The good news about “Spring Awakening,” which is being performed tonight and on Sunday at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando, is that none of this matters. The production isn’t Wedekind’s original, but the musical adaptation by Steven Stater and composer Duncan Sheik. And if a lot of the themes in the original seem rather melodramatic, that actually works perfectly through this version, where the characters’ heightened emotions take on a new, soaring life through the songs.
In fact, the more melodramatic it seems, the more emotionally involved the audience gets.
The original Broadway production opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in December 2006, and went on to win 8 Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. It follows a group of teenage boys and girls and how their sexual awakenings get thrown into the face of the cultural conformity that the older Germany prides itself on.
In addition to Wendla, that includes Moritz Stiefel, a nervous boy is who worried about failing his exams and the reaction his family would have if he did. He confides in his friend Melchior that he isn’t sleeping at night, in part because he keeps having sexual dreams. Melchior, who has learned sexual information from books, tries to convince Moritz this is normal.
Wendla later learns that her friend Martha is being physically and sexually abused by her father, and that her mother doesn’t seem to care. This creates a spark in Wendla that prompts her to seek out Melchoir — and convince him to beat her with a switch because she has never been physically disciplined and she’s aroused by the idea. Melchoir is horrified at the thought, but that doesn’t stop his natural desires for Wendla. As they get closer, tragedy awaits them.
This is heady stuff, made that much richer and intoxicating by the rock score by Stater and Sheik that allows the cast to express their emotions through songs like “The Bitch of Living,” “I Believe” and “Don’t Do Sadness” — so much more effectively than through dialogue.
While the 14-member cast is uniformly good, Anton Haggblom as the smart but emotionally overwrought Melchoir, Noa Carmel as the sweet and innocent, but very sexually confused Wendla, and Danny Kornfeld as the suicidal Moritz are absolutely superb. It’s really a young people’s cast, save for Wendy Starkand and Lyle Moon, who do an excellent job juggling the multiple adult roles.
For all of the show’s tragic and haunting moments, by the end, as the full cast gathers to sing “The Song of the Purple Summer,” you definitely will feel a sense of hope for a brighter future down the road … an idea brought home at the Dr. Phillips production by another cast member, Luis Diaz, who took a moment at the start of the show, and at the end, to remember the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
So did the play’s director, Jacques Broquet, who encouraged everyone to unite against hate. Broquet was particularly moving as he talked about his life in Paris, and as he recalled the devastating terrorist attack on Nov. 13 2015 when attackers killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan theatre.
Rousing, funny, sad and uplifting, “Spring Awakening” is a great show to begin with, and the production at Dr. Phillips brings it very vividly to life.
The show continues tonight and Sunday at 8 p.m. at the performing arts center at 445 S. Magnolia Ave. To learn more, call 844-513-2014.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..