Theater Review: SPRING AWAKENING (Porchlight Music Theatre)

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by Stephen Best on April 29, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


As timely now as it was when the original play was written over 150 years ago, Spring Awakening is now rocking the stage at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. This edgy musical might seem a bit aggressive for the normal fare at this venue (known during the day as a Windy City school for the performing arts), but trust me, these baby-faced performers fit right in. Based on the scandalous banned-at-the-time 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, this coming-of-age rock musical about the inner and outer tumult of adolescent sexuality has found quite a fan base. Now directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier, this Awakening isn’t played for its shock value, for which I am entirely grateful. With the daily bombardment of car-jackings, stabbings, robberies and assaults on the news, reported four times a day, everyday, including a days earlier transit station assault on local actor and personality Will Clinger, I am happy a little restraint was shown.

Kelan M. Smith, John Marshall, Jr., Kevin James Sievert,
Juwon Tyrel Perry, Quinn Kelch, and Jack DeCesare
Ariana Burks, Sydney Monet Swanson, Maddy Kelly and Maya Lou Hlava

In its initial 2006 incarnation on Broadway, this production raised more than a few eyebrows. Unapologetic themes of teenaged sexuality, domestic and sexualized violence, homophobia and suicide were front and center. I don’t know if it is the fact this material is now sixteen years old, or if this is the fifth incarnation I have seen, or if the stick to measure the landscape of teenaged sexuality for entertainment is now the Zendaya-led HBO series Euphoria (a weekly celebration of substance abuse and rampant teenaged sexuality), this production felt almost chaste by comparison. What a difference a decade and a half has made on the desensitization of the audience.

Maya Lou Hlava, Michael Joseph Mitchell and McKinley Carter

It may seem odd that a musical with front and center topics like masturbation, nocturnal emissions, spanking, sex, suicide and back-alley abortions would end up being a Tony-winner, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, which can be credited to former pop star Duncan Sheik, whose music here was his Broadway debut. Partnering with book and lyrics writer Steven Sater, “Mama Who Bore Me”, “The Dark I Know Well” and “The Song of Purple Summer” have become an essential part of the songbook of Broadway. (The original cast featured the pre-Glee pairing of Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele before they became stars.)

Maya Lou Hlava and Jack DeCesare
Kevin James Sievert, Quinn Kelch, Ariana Burks, John Marshall, Jr., Juwon Tyrel Perry,
Kelan M. Smith, Sydney Monet Swanson, Maddy Kelly and Jack DeCesare

McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell play Adult woman and Adult man, a delicious if not repulsive collection of characters, ranging from parents to educators who continually fail their young progeny in every way. They would fit seamlessly on the couch at Fox News. It is impossible not to draw comparisons to the repugnant similarities of politicos Betsy DeVos, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis, even though these characters were written long before these bozos were elected. When their chicanery leads to a student killing himself, they counter with smoke and mirror tactics. Both actors nailing the rotten-to-the-core cornucopia of characters they portray, these folks would have brought marshmallows to the Salem Witch Trials. To be fair, there is one positive adult character.

Tiffany T. Taylor

Other roles don’t have it any easier. Martha, the always engaging Ariana Burks, is physically abused by her father while her mother turns a blind eye. Newcomer Tiffany Taylor plays Ilse, a runaway who fled her home in the middle of winter to escape her parents physical abuse, and who now lives in an artist colony where she is still sexually abused by the male artists. John Marshall, Jr. and Kelan M. Smith play Hanschen and Ernst, a young gay couple who steal a couple fleeting kisses and most of the audience’s laughter. Moritz is an anxious young man and struggling student, unfairly and unceremoniously blacklisted by his teachers and then shamed by his father. Completely alienated, he takes his own life. But Quinn Kelch’s approach to the character, with overly exaggerated comical facial expressions, so distracted from the material that any sympathy for the character quickly evaporated. Kelch would fit flawlessly in a production of Green Day’s American Idiot, but here, his choices just distracted from the material.

John Marshall, Jr. and Kelan M. Smith
Quinn Kelch

Clearly there was no one busier in the creative team than intimacy director Kristina Fluty. Every young character is plagued by their own confused adolescent intimacy issues, but under Fluty’s eye nothing seemed out of anyone’s comfort zone. Christopher Rhoton’s scenic design elements peppered the stage with determination, creating poignant moments in the corners of the stage. Patrick Chan’s beautiful lighting aided in heart-stopping moments when a fade to black told more than any gun shot or screaming sound effect ever could. Bill Morey’s costuming paying homage to the original without busting Porchlight’s obvious budgeting limitations.

Ariana Burks, McKinley Carter, John Marshall, Jr., Kevin James Sievert,
Tiffany T. Taylor, Juwon Tyrel Perry, Kelan M. Smith, Sydney Monet Swanson,
Michael Joseph Mitchell and Maddy Kelly

Budding sexuality through the eyes of teenagers is a purposely uncomfortable narrative. Spring Awakening could easily be played as a one-note teenage rebellion, but under the watchful eye of Didier there are true moments of touching artistry on display. There would be no show if everyone made the right decisions all of the time, but these parents not giving their children even the most remedial information on what is happening with their bodies is just criminal. However, one — especially a liberal like myself — should see this show squarely through the gaze of 2022 and not 1891. The show has flaws, but the ending finale “The Song of Purple Summer” is a stunner. Didier and company served the material well. 

Quinn Kelch, McKinley Carter and Jack DeCesare
Tiffany T. Taylor, Jack DeCesare, Sydney Monet Swanson, Maddy Kelly,
Michael Joseph Mitchell, McKinley Carter, Kelan M. Smith, Maya Lou Hlava,
Ariana Burks and John Marshall, Jr.

photos by Liz Lauren 

Ariana Burks, Sydney Monet Swanson, Maddy Kelly, Tiffany T. Taylor and Maya Lou Hlava

Spring Awakening
Porchlight Music Theatre
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St
Thurs at at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 (check for additional performances)
ends on May 29, 2022 EXTENDED to June 2, 2022
for tickets, call 773.777.9884 or visit Porchlight

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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