Spring Awakening brought 67 performers to auditions. That’s a big number for Music Theatre of Denton projects.
“We had three auditions,” said co-director Vicki Kirkley. “At the last audition, we pulled the most difficult scenes from the show for them to do, because we knew that would show us what they could do.”
Spring Awakening is the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about a group of youths in an insular German community. The teens confront cultural, religious and parental authorities at the close of a century. Atheism, homosexuality, premarital sex and abortion test the ties that bind in a town where church and tradition make for a double yoke that constrains free-thinking and sensuality.
John Norine, co-director and music director, said putting the tough scenes in front of prospective players was the best yardstick for the youthful corps that turned out to auditions.
“It was a divining rod, really,” Norine said. “It’s one thing to say you’re up to the challenges of a show. It’s another thing to do it. We really wanted to see who would best be able to do it.”
Kirkley saw Spring Awakening during a trip to New York and counts it the favorite of six Broadway shows she saw that summer. The musical bears an eerie resemblance to the American political and cultural landscape of the present.
“The first scheduled performance of the play was in 1906, but it was banned before for scenes of homosexuality, violence and language, among other things,” Norine said.
Spring Awakening isn’t for anyone with sensitivities about vulgar and profane language, sex and religious doubt.
The musical surrounds the intellectual and sensual awakenings of teenagers Melchior Gabor (Aaron Jakaboski) and Wendla Bergmann (Josylynn Reid), who defy church and home when they become lovers. Wendla is shielded from the facts of life by her nervous mother, while Melchior’s parents are more forward-thinking and permissive. Moritz Stiefel (Steve Robert Pounds) struggles to perform in his rigorous school, which makes puberty all the more upsetting. Moritz thinks his erotic dreams are a sign of insanity. Melchior rescues him, divulging the mechanics of sex in an illustrated essay.
The teenagers learn that some things can’t be undone. Martha (Kathryn McGinness) endures her father’s abuse. Ilse (Liz J. Millea) struggles to get away from the dangers in an artists’ colony, where she sought escape from sexual abuse at home. Hanschen (Tyler Hamilton) and Ernst (Ben Brown) struggle against a mutual, verboten attraction. Melchior and Moritz’s classmates, Otto (Ryan Mitchell) and Georg (Brad Justice) are in the throes of puberty.
Actors Mandy Rausch and Daniel Garza perform the roles of all the adults.
Kirkley said the themes and issues of Spring Awakening — angst, sexuality and uncertainty — are as relevant in the 21st century as they were at the close of the 19th century. The score bridges the gulf of 200 years. Pop-rock musician Duncan Sheik, best known for his 1996 Top 40 single “Barely Breathing,” wrote the score for Spring Awakening. The songs blend folk-rock with a heavy pop sensibility.
“I think it’s pretty much a rock opera, really,” Kirkley said.
“This isn’t completely like a traditional musical,” Norine said. “We’ve talked about the play world versus the song world. The songs are monologues in the same way that Othello, Iago and Romeo turn to the audience in a scene and say what they’re really thinking.”
The songs of Spring Awakening develop the characters, revealing their secrets and hopes. The characters’ dialogue moves the plot.
“Part of that, to me, is that the songs take them out of reality,” Mitchell said. “They can’t say what they really think to teachers or their parents. They can’t say what they want, what they want to do. The songs show how they feel, what’s going on.”
Millea said the songs help the performers bring the characters from page to stage.
“There is so much inner monologue, and the metaphors are just gorgeous in this show,” Millea said. “When she [Ilse] sings ‘spring and summer every other day’ to Moritz, what does that mean?’ She’s remembering her and Moritz as children, before her father started coming into her bedroom. She’s convinced that he’s going to walk her home and help her make things right. But he can’t do that.”
Reid said Wendla’s opening song is all about discovery — in spite of a mother who is too fearful to be honest.
“It’s this character’s first chance to see who she really is,” Reid said. “She’s looking at her body in the mirror and really seeing herself as a woman for the first time. Even though her mother has never explained what’s happening to her, she’s noticing it.”
Rausch, who returns to the Denton stage for the first time since becoming a mother, said she wrote a diary entry in the character’s voice reflecting on the aborted conversation about the birds and the bees. All Frau Bergmann can stammer out to her daughter is that, in order to conceive a baby, a woman “must love her husband with all her heart.”
“Frau Bergmann has probably never had that conversation, ever, I don’t think,” Rausch said. “I think everything she knows about it she probably learned on her wedding night. And I think she probably didn’t enjoy it.”
Garza said Herr Stiefel can’t muster much empathy for his son, Moritz, either. Where Frau Bergmann dodges pain, Herr Stiefel plows over it like a bulldozer.
“Moritz is a terrible student,” Garza said. “He acts terrible. He dresses horribly. Everything he does makes me look bad. And I don’t care what his issues are.”
The design of the musical hints at its 1891 setting in costumes, wigs and makeup. The set is abstract — sloping ramps, angled fences that suggest trees. Kirkley, who also is the lighting director, saturates the action with moody, color-rich lights.
“We wanted it to be stylized but simple,” Kirkley said. “You can get bogged down with the realism of a show, but this isn’t that kind of show.”
Jakaboski said Spring Awakening has earned its loyal following by leavening brutal honesty with possibility.
“It’s a hopeful ending,” he said.
Rausch wouldn’t predict a happily-ever-after.
“I think they’ll be happier than their elders, at least,” she said.
“Yeah, I think they could go on to be the change they want for themselves,” Pounds said.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
What: Music Theatre of Denton presents the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics and book by Steven Sater.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and May 9-10; and 2 p.m. Sunday and May 11
Where: Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 62 and older and $10 for students with a valid ID. For mature audiences. For tickets, visit www.musictheatreofdenton.com or call 940-382-1915.