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Theater Review: "Spring Awakening"

Teachers, parents and school officials are portrayed as human instruments of oppression. You may recognize a few from your own past.
Photo credit:
Adriana Zuniga-Williams

Somewhere in those awkward teen years, touch takes on a meaning it never had before, awakening something deep inside – and you know your life is changed forever.

For boys like Melchior and Moritz of “Spring Awakening,” that something will inspire dreams – wet and otherwise – and unexplained stirrings they are not equipped to cope with.

For the girls, those years may be even worse, vulnerable as they are to suggestion and too often receiving little information about what’s happening to them.

Those hormonal teenage years, so full of confusion and promise, dangers and delights, are the subject of “Spring Awakening.” The Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik musical is onstage in a smashing production through Aug. 12 at Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play “Frühlings Erwachen” (which was instantly labeled pornographic and banned), “Spring Awakening” tells the stories of several late 19th-century German kids, updated with a pop-rock score.

The result is a musical that in 2007 won eight of the 11 Tonys for which it was nominated.

The show centers on three teens in a 19th-century German village in the 1890s, but just as Sater and Sheik added contemporary music, Director Teri Brown includes elements from succeeding generations, particularly noticeable in hairstyles, clothing, and Patrick Mayuyu’s youthfully athletic choreography.

The show is anchored by three major characters. Melchior Gabor (Peter Armado) is the rebel, forever reading, thinking and questioning the Latin master, and getting away with it only because he’s the best student.

His buddy Moritz Stiefel (Seejay Lewis) is at the other end of the academic scale, struggling with Virgil and equations and trying desperately to measure up to his father’s goals for him. Moritz is haunted by erotic dreams he doesn’t understand (“PleaseGod, give me consumption and take away these sticky dreams,” he pleads).

Pretty Wendla Bergmann (Truly Bailey) begs her mother to tell her where babies come from (“I’m an aunt for the second time and I don’t even know how it happens,” she wails), but is brushed aside by an adult unwilling to talk about sex.

But this is no cheery little piece about masturbation and The First Time. Wedekind was considered the precursor of German expressionism in drama, and these kids live in a dark world that includes abusive adults, abortion and suicide. These elements are not glossed over here.

The repression of 19th century German society is represented in the adult roles, all played by Rebecca Miller and Anthony Donovan.

Teachers, parents and school officials are portrayed as human instruments of oppression. You may recognize a few from your own past.

Local wizard Chad Oakley, usually found at the light board, is responsible for the amazing detail-oriented set – the best I’ve seen at OnStage. Oakley also does his usual fine job with the lighting design.

Armado’s Melchior, with his purple patch of hair and questioning nature, is not only achingly convincing but gives pause when he sings “All they say is ‘Trust in what is written’/Wars are made and somehow that is wisdom.”

Lewis, with his first jumbled, later electrified hair, brought a tear to my eye as the kid who never quite learned how to game the system sufficiently to get what he needed.

Bailey’s lovely Wendla is heartbreaking as well, especially when she suffers because of her mother’s failure to teach her.

Kaitlyn Summers (as Martha) and Sara Ah Sing (as free-spirited Ilse) are also excellent as girls who get more abuse than support from home.

Bravo to Martín Martiarena and his five fine onstage musicians, who know how to play just loud enough.

Kudos to OnStage artistic director (and director of this show) Teri Brown, for her gutsy back-to-back programing of “Heathers” and “Spring Awakening.” I hope Chula Vista and the wider county take note.

For now, if the idea of reliving those years is unappealing to you, send your kids to “Spring Awakening.” They’ll love it.

The details

“Spring Awakening” plays through August 19, 2017 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Avenue (near F Street), Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm., Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or www.onstageplayhouse.org