All words: Ali Goldstein
It’s easy to forget while living out the snug comforts of early adulthood what is was like to be fifteen. Just as by the time fall rolls around, we lose sight of that first deliriousness of winter tumbling suddenly into spring. We forget all too quickly that heady sensation of life suddenly in bloom.
“Spring Awakening,” the current Keegan Theatre staging, jolts you back to those vivid years of adolescence. The musical tells the story of teenagers in a small-town in 18th Century Germany for whom the propsect of taking charge of their own lives seems impossibly remote — even as the growing up happens all at once. A youthful cast and creative staging at the postage stamp-sized Church Street Theatre awakens the emotional tightrope of adolescence with authentic electricity.
Dressed in provincial clothing and sporting clunky, antiquated German names, the teenager characters waver between indistinguishable members of a group and fiercely asserting their individuality. They are one and unique, with similar mannerisms and doubts but poignant differences in how they choose to express the questions with which they all grapple.
There’s Melchoir, played by Vincent Kempski, the cohort’s hero and collective crush and Wendla, played by Ali Hoxie, Melchoir’s love and bearer of the town’s innocence. Then there’s Moritz, played by Paul Scanlan, sweet and smart and trembling with questions — perhaps the town’s greatest tragedy.
The story pulls together every possible plot twist for a teenager’s coming-of-age. There’s suicide and there’s sex and there’s abortion. The plot admittedly feels at times a bit like an episode of DeGrassi, trying too hard to address the seriousness of adolescence. However, the story ultimately manages to veer adeptly between the darkness of being a teenager and its redemptive moments of giddy sweetness, an imperfect oscillation between doubts so deep they bring characters to the knees of suicide and the frilly hope of a new crush. At its whole, this performace succeeds in authentically capturing the exhilaration and fear of being a teenager, cast into a world of sudden adult darkness but without the equivalent adult vocabulary to make sense of it all. The look on Wendla’s face when she learns she is pregnant captures it all: she didn’t even know the name for what she’d just done — sex — or its incredibly adult implications.
With youthful actors and a simple set, the musical does at times feel a bit young. The rawness of this production, however, is both its charm and its point. “Spring Awakening” was first famous for its big-stakes Broadway productions but it rings truer on the Church Street Theatre’s small and simple stage. Even the scale of the performance space seems to echo and aggrandize the characters’ suffocation — where is the space for them to become their own adults?
These characters are bursting with feelings. The wholeheartedness of the actors and the genuineness of the performance translates that teenage melodrama into an aching jolt of growing pains. It’s a poignant reminder of just how much growing up happens when we don’t yet realize we’re in bloom.