Theater Review: SPRING AWAKENING (Wildsong Productions in Ocean Beach, San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on July 24, 2022

in Theater-San Diego


Watching Spring Awakening in 2008 at the Balboa Theatre and again in 2022 at the OB Playhouse, it is interesting how different the play struck me. Not because of the quality of either production, but because of how different our world is in the fourteen years from a just-elected Barack Obama nation to a post-Trump America. Despite being set across the ocean 140 years ago, book writer Steven Sater‘s message about the danger of ignorance and moral power control hits home even more now, especially in light of our currently right-leaning Supreme Court.

The story focuses primarily on three characters. Moritz (Kannon Gowen) is a teen with raging hormones whose every waking thought is sexual, but due to a dearth of any sex ed, it’s driving him crazy not knowing what girls’ bodies are like or what he could do with them. Wendla (Lauren Ashley) is a late teen who futilely implores her mother to explain how her married sister got pregnant; she knows babies come from marriage, but nothing more. Melchior (Kevin Phan) is something of a daring rebel, perceptively challenging the Protestant Reformation teachings of their schoolmasters. The storyline explores the path of these three and other classmates, and the pain brought upon them by rigidity and conformity.

By contrast to the nineteenth-century German setting, the music from 1990s pop icon Duncan Sheik and lyrics from Sater are solidly in the rock era, often edgy in content (including the standout song from the show, “Totally Fucked”). This production underscores the anachronistic songs by using a modernlooking style in period pieces (ironically, besides a somewhat punky hairstyle, atheist Melchior sports a dangling cross earring). Past and present blur wonderfully, making the material more relatable. Musical direction by San Diego staple Leigh Scarritt strongly reinforces both the dynamic ensemble’s power and each singer’s strengths. A couple of songs, in particular “The Bitch of Living,” could benefit from reducing the accompaniment, as lyrics were swallowed by the band.

The direction by Erik Ramirez and Brooke Aliceon is swift and makes great use of the small space. They find ways, especially in Act I, to bring out humor where they can, contrasting it to the darker elements. Unlike Wildsong Productions’s two-tiered Jekyll and Hyde, which had a few scenes that were hard to see when set on the ground, the co-directors utilize a lower riser, creating levels that are easier to see.

Where Spring Awakening suffers at times is in the lyrics. Sater, so fine with the dialogue, waxes extremely poetic in places. It may well be that, as with poetry, careful analysis of the songs could allow for interesting interpretations, but as an audience hearing it once quickly, whole sections became well-sung tunes without any meaning. If there was a point to the words of the final, full-cast song, “The Song of Purple Summer”, it was not clear. Fortunately, curtain calls ended with a upbeat reprise of “Totally Fucked”, so that is the catchy song that lingers on the way out instead.

Rock music aside, the story is essentially a tender one, examining the pain that social mores and oppressive cultures create. In addition to the show feeling more timely than the 2008 production downtown, the intimacy of the space and proximity of the young cast made this excellent production even more enjoyable than the largescale Balboa one.

photos by Brooke Aliceon McDougal

Spring Awakening
Wildsong Productions
OB Playhouse, 4944 Newport Ave in Ocean Beach
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on August 7, 2022
for tickets, visit Wildsong

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