Theater review: TAPS’ ‘Spring Awakening’ is an inaugural production to be remembered

Oct. 30, 2016, 12:23 a.m.

Any first production in Stanford’s newly renovated Roble Studio Theater was bound to draw attention. But the inaugural performance of “Spring Awakening – The Musical” was more than a simple showcase of TAPS’ state-of-the-art performance space. The production is a masterpiece. Directed by VPUE Harry Elam, Jr. (artistic director) and Ken Savage ’14 (stage director), “Spring Awakening” is a carefully crafted combination of knockout student performances and a near-genius sense of staging.

The fierce, emotional authenticity of the production is the most crucial aspect of the musical’s success. Based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play of the same name, “Spring Awakening” is a contemporary musical with a pop/rock score that considers the teenage struggle with sexuality, morality and adulthood. With book and lyrics written by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the musical is a coming-of-age tale free of any drab melancholia. The show’s hardcore rock elements could easily come off as an unrealistic gag, were the rest of the play not bolstered by emotionally candid performances. While there is a time for comedic nostril flaring and theatrical eye-rolls, there was a reason that Melchior, one of the musical’s male love-interests played by senior Matt Herrero (‘17), demanded the audience’s attention upon his every entrance. Deeply fraught with his own meditations on society, he shows his inner state rather than tells it. A single quiver of his brow gets the job done.

Aside from the spectacular individual performances, the brilliance of “Spring Awakening” stems from the subtle allusion to language and communication. For example, wrapped around the thrust stage (in which the audience sits on three sides of the playing space) are Latin phrases written in bright white, capital letters. At first, this is a seemingly inconsequential detail of the set. Within minutes, however, the harsh reality of the schoolroom is introduced, and the realm of the sphere of action merges with the realm of the theater. The Latin phrases lining the walls of the blackbox theater echo the teacher’s (Graham Roth ‘12) harsh treatment of the schoolboys. With every lash of his switch, the bold letters behind the action reinforce the institution’s inescapable nature. While this is the only scene which directly references the memorization of the dead language, a large sign haunts the audience throughout the rest of the show. Moritz’s (James Seifert ‘17) suicide was at least in part prompted by his failure in school, and the Latin backgrounding his scenes of torment becomes more mocking as the show progresses. Amid the emotional challenges of the characters, “Spring Awakening” smartly touches on the blaring rhetoric of society.

Another instance where the musical suggests the importance of communication takes place in the staging. As Wendla (Saya Jenks ‘16), the musical’s main female protagonist, sings her first song at show’s opening, she is soon joined by an all-female ensemble who flank either side of her. As she sings, they enter holding candles and, upon setting them down on the stage, begin to dance interpretively with their hands and bodies. While the gestures may only be suggestions of sign language, the directors were clearly referencing Deaf West Theater’s Tony-nominated production of “Spring Awakening,” which opened on Broadway last year. In that production, songs were signed as well as sung, serving not only as communication but also as a visual form of self-expression. Ken Savage hints to this with similar effect. In later scenes of sexual expression and lust, the ensemble again signs, highlighting the illusory nature of the scene and stressing the profound interconnectedness of the lovers.

While the excellent direction was noticed in more dramatic scenes, the cast did not fail to deliver energetic performances. The very first scene between Wendla (Saya Jenks ‘16) and her mother (Lucie Fleming ’17) displays both actresses’ awareness of the comedy in tragedy. Jenks carries herself with the genuine and believable lightness of a child, asking her mother about the facts of life. While the mother seems more like a caricature of what it means to be a “sexually repressed mother” than a believable maternal figure, Fleming fully captures the woman’s high strung mentality. Throwing her apron over her daughter’s head, she contemplates the situation with a face of nervousness and disgust, eliciting waves of laughter.

Despite strong performances, it should be noted that “Spring Awakening” could have, frankly, been funnier. In the first act, the song “My Junk” is preceded by a number of sexual episodes, including a boy portrayed by Jeff Bennett (‘17) masturbating to a picture of a woman under his covers, as his father, also played by Roth, repeatedly checks in on him. The scene did not come off as grotesque or lewd as it easily could have, but the pair lost an opportunity for a more amusing exchange. The scene revolves around the saga of the young man hiding his self-pleasure, but utterly misses the hilarious absurdity of the teenage inability to stop self-pleasuring. While the scenario could have been a much needed point of levity in a heavy show, his sexual excitement was taken too seriously.

The stark, utilitarian atmosphere of the Roble Studio’s blackbox theater could not have been more fitting for this new-age rendition of “Spring Awakening.” The massive room and black walls evoked the harsh realities of a sexual blossoming, while simultaneously providing the ultimate blank canvas upon which the designer can build meaning. One of the most visually stunning aspects of the musical is the moment in which Moritz commits a silent suicide, signaled by a blackout; the next scene immediately opens on his funeral. As the schoolboys and girls line up to pay their respects, red rose petals rain down from the ceiling and fall 30 feet to the floor. They collect in a pool of blood around the base of his headstone, swelling around the feet of where Moritz had stood just a moment before. While an aesthetically beautiful scene, it is utterly haunting.

The final scene of “Spring Awakening” provides a visualization of the communal spirit hinted at throughout. The cast comes out to sing their final song, “The Song of Purple Summer,” in their modern clothes, lightly greeting each other with kind smiles and hands placed gently on each other’s shoulders. Emotional strife and loss behind them, the company comes together, signaling a deep awareness of each other and what it means to be ‘awake’ in modern day society.  

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Miles Petrie as the actor who played Hanschen.

Contact Olivia Witting at [email protected]

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