Desire is deadly in American University’s ‘Spring Awakening’

The performance of this musical feels more powerful than ever, and the production is filled with stellar performances all around.

Spring Awakening begins in darkness. Wendla Bergmann, played by Robin Kane, stands alone on stage, lamenting a lack of guidance from her mother. She is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood but is still unenlightened to the mysteries of life. For Wendla, all these answers will come too late, as she is failed by the oppressive adults and puritanical culture of her 19th-century German village.

The original text of Spring Awakening comes from a play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind about 19th-century German teenagers living in a sexually repressive culture discovering their burgeoning desires. Due to its controversial subject matter, the play was not performed for the first time until 1906. One hundred years later, Spring Awakening debuted on Broadway as many of us know it today: a rock music spectacular. The memorable setting of a small German village teeming with lustful and randy adolescents is brought to life once more in American University’s production of the passionate musical, directed by Nadia Guevara.

Scene from ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo by Elena Zimmerman.

The set of Spring Awakening at the Greenberg Theatre, designed by Sarah Beth Hall, is charming and quaint. The orchestra sits on a platform above the stage, accessed by a spiral staircase that is incorporated into many scenes. The background of the set glows pink and blue, with sketch drawings of a giant eye, a field of flowers, and a fetus in a womb. The theater is adorned with string lights hanging from the ceiling, softly glowing and making the production warm and inviting, much like the characters we are introduced to.

Wendla and her friends gush over the boys they have crushes on, but they know nothing about the adult world of love and relationships. Wendla is an aunt for the second time and complains that she still has no idea how her sister bore two children. The boys are simultaneously enthralled and tormented by new feelings and confusing dreams: all except Melchoir, the sole owner of knowledge among his classmates, who reassures his friends that their budding sexualities are natural. In the musical number “The Bitch of Living,” the boys hilariously lament their stifled desires in one of the funniest scenes in the show. Geogr, played by Finn Fairfield, gives a hysterical performance of a young boy lusting after his older piano teacher.

The play shifts from frisky and humorous to dark and twisted quite quickly, with the first signs of trouble coming from the confession of Martha, played by Grace Connallon, that she is physically and sexually abused by her father. The naive teenagers start to realize that their parents’ and teachers’ rigid authority may be more dangerous than they initially believed. Wendla is particularly distressed by Martha’s revelation, leading her to seek answers and comfort in the arms of Melchoir.

This production is filled with stellar performances all around, from Robin Kane’s sweet, innocent Wendla to Jason Zuckerman’s daring, confident Melchoir. Jane Palladino and Daniel Zavilowitz play all of the adults in this production, swiftly moving between portrayals of different parents and teachers with dextrous ease. Palladino’s performance as Melchoir’s sympathetic but ultimately negligent mother is moving, while her portrayal of the strict piano teacher is endlessly amusing.

Scene from ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo by Elena Zimmerman.

Humor certainly plays a role in this musical, filled with provocative dance numbers and sexy rendezvous, but there come times when darkness engulfs the narrative, leading to the tragic heart of this story. At the mercy of their parents’ withholding of knowledge or infliction of punishment, some of the young boys and girls are led to grim endings. The bright songs and cleverly choreographed dance numbers are entertaining but ultimately just a sweet appetizer to the meaty meal of this show. The sorrow of the second act soon swallows up the playful first act, crescendoing with an intense final song, “The Song of Purple Summer,” where the teenagers find hope that the world can someday become more open-minded, accepting, and free.

The messages at the core of Spring Awakening are fascinating to digest. It’s particularly interesting that a 19th-century story can still have such a grasp on audiences today. It may seem as though we have come a long way from those dark days, but there are pockets of the country where the plot of Spring Awakening may not seem like such a distant happening. The performance of this musical feels more powerful than ever, and the cast and crew at American University gave due diligence to the rich material, bringing the evergreen stories of these girls and boys into the light once again.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Spring Awakening played April 4 through 6, 2024, presented by the American University College of Arts performing at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($10–$15, free for AU students), call (202) 885-3634 or order online.

The program for Spring Awakening is online here.

Spring Awakening
Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind

Wendla: Robin Kan
Martha: Grace Connallon
Thea: Grace Awono
Anna: Sara Wiser
Ilse: Danielle Cohen
Ensemble/Swing: Liz Ayres Brown & Isabel Manning
Melchior: Jason Zuckerman
Moritz: Jack Elizabeth Sage Peterson
Hanschen/Rupert: Ethan Kauffman
Ernst/Reinhold: Simon Huynh
Georg/Dieter/Dance Captain: Finn Fairfield
Otto/Ulbrecht: Connor Reagan
Adult Woman: Jane Palladino
Adult Man: Daniel Zavilowitz

Directed by Nadia Guevara; Music Direction by Kristin Stowell; Choreography by Maurice Johnston; Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter; Intimacy Choreography by Sierra Young; Scenic Design by Sarah Beth Hall; Costume Design by Sydney Moore; Lighting Design by Jason Arnold; Sound Design by Delaney Bray; Facilities and Production Manager Greg Anderson; Technical Direction by John Stahrr; Lighting and Audio Coordinator Nikolai Argue; Props Coordinator Mercedes Blakenship; Vocal Coach Ethan Watermeier

Assistant Directors Jacob Brennan and Sedona Salb; Assistant Scenic Designer Karis Sneed; Stage Manager Sarina Govindaiah; Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Music Director Sam Lewis; Assistant Stage Managers Katie Lurie and Jillian Skara; Dramaturg Abigail Chase; Light Board Operator Staci Tomblin; FOH Mix Sam Farace; Mic Techs Lindsay Morin and Nate Rimalovski; QLab Operator Lilia Myers; Wardrobe Crew Lucille Rieke and Sophie Fischer; Followspots Dylan Toll, Maddy Gough, and Evin Goodwin


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