“I try and just kick it, but then what can I do?
We’ve all got our junk – and my junk is you.”
My Junk – Spring Awakening
Every generation has its musical, it seems, that one musical that either dared to express the feeling of a time or place, or presented itself in ways that forever changed the landscape of musical theatre. Hair was one such piece; Rent was the most recent, daring to bring modern music surging onto Broadway accompanied by a gutsy and realistic portrayal of the lives of the bohemians of the 90’s set loosely within the familiar framework of Puccini’s La Boheme. Moving one step further in its shattering of the fourth wall, Spring Awakening is undoubtedly the musical of this generation.
This isn’t to say that the musical’s appeal lies solely for those whose adolescent plights the work details in sympathetic light are fresh and ongoing, for its story, taken from the original late 1800’s work by Frank Wedekind, is one that rings true for anyone who struggled with sexuality and parental expectations. But it is today’s sociopolitical climate – one in which abortion still remains illegal in many places, where abstinence education is still touted by some misguided leaders as effective in preventing teen pregnancy, where children are still abused and where we still, to some degree, refuse to talk about any of it – to which the musical speaks. My proverbial hat is off to Steven Sater for striving to achieve what Wedekind sought to do in his time: creating a societal change towards empathetic discussion and open acknowledgment of the struggles of youth.
For me, Spring Awakening is charged with scenes and songs that underscore my own experiences in life. From parental harshness to butting heads with authority, from questions of morality and shying from organized religion to find a new path, from sexual confusion and mistreatment to the beauty of first intimacy, and from mental anguish and despair to the loss of dearly loved ones, each scene finds me captive with raw empathy for the characters on stage. I return again and again, to marvel at a cast that so gracefully and earnestly embraces the material, bringing it to life with a love for the characters that shines through in each line’s delivery and each lyric sung.
To individually review the 8 (and counting!) shows I’ve seen on the tour of this production (my comments on my Broadway shows and a brief summary of the plot can be found here) would be time consuming and repetitive. Instead, I’ll pause here to reflect individually on actors seen in a non-ensemble capacity.
Slipping into the female lead role, Christy does an outstanding job in capturing Wendla’s simultaneous innocence and inner strength in a way I have only seen Lea Michele truly capture with her performance (I always found Alexandra Socha to play the role too child-like, too innocent in places, and somewhat emotionally flat). While some might believe that her rendition of opening song Mama Who Bore Me pales in comparison to her powerful evocative delivery of Whispering, to me it almost feels as if she is consciously singing the former with a more delicate and fragile voice – the voice of a girl softly addressing herself in a mirror, as opposed to the defiant near-woman lashing back at the disapproving mother and community in the latter number. Her performance during pivotal act one ‘hayloft’ scene is astonishing in its honesty and a highlight of her performance; I’ve never been so convinced of Wendla’s nurturing desire and turmoil within over choosing between what is ‘right’ and what feels right for her, elders be damned. I also love her delivery of her lines when pleading with her mother to tell her where babies come from; it’s almost a sly bargaining approach, as if hammering out a deal with her reluctant mother, as opposed to other actresses who almost come off as petulant children stomping their feet and demanding ‘why not?’. She’s also a trooper; not even a painful mishap on stage (that left me wincing and gasping in horror) can hold her back from pouring herself into Wendla. She is certainly one to watch for the future, as an actress and as a singer.
One of the few Broadway alumni joining the tour, Blake Bashoff easily steals scenes throughout the production, winning over even the hearts of those more conservative theatre-goers aghast at the more explicit and frank action that takes place. Having enjoyed his Broadway take on the role of a character I find lovable and bipolar, with Blake having stepped into the enormous shoes left vacant by Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., his performance of Moritz has shifted to one that is both hilarious and soul-crushingly sad, one that surpasses his already strong Broadway performance only a year ago and leaves one certain that, were he to have originated the role, Bashoff would be the one with the Tony. Part of me feels that the poignancy in particular that shines through during his character’s tragedy in Act 2 is partly in thanks to his interactions with Steffi D.’s Ilse. The ever-changing delivery that Steffi provides each night as Moritz converses with Ilse keeps Bashoff on his toes, allowing him to perhaps enact an even truer sense of disappointment and regret when she departs the stage, and consequently, a more heart-rending goodbye to the audience.
I had the fortune to not only nearly lose my eye as Ms Benko rocked out as ensemble during rousing number Totally Fucked, but to also witness her slip on stage as an understudy for Thea. Thea is a character that can be played in a variety of ways, although a certain spunk must be there for her to play off the more serious girls in the group. I found Julie’s take adorable, a sort of midway point between the exuberant and almost conspiratorial Remy Zaken approach and Kimiko Glenn’s hyper determined girl in mad crush. I would love to see Julie in a larger role in this production, because her voice is gorgeous and her stage presence strong.
I stumbled in the course of 8 shows so far in this Toronto run into the luck of seeing Todd’s second performance as the Adult Men, and it was a striking contrast. One of the things I love about a good understudy is that their differing takes and inflections on key lines can coax dramatically different reactions from their colleagues on stage. While some of Todd’s choices and deliveries were not quite as much to my personal liking, some stood in sharp relief in positive fashion against what I’ve come to enjoy and expect from Henry Stram. His condemnation of Moritz’s scholastic error was brutal, creating a further tension that in turn created an even more dramatic contrast to the energetic number Bitch Of Living, while his slight changes in delivery as Moritz’s disappointed father left Blake Bashoff even more tearful and destroyed than usual at its conclusion. I would be more than happy to see him again.
I have always been a tremendous fan of Lauren Pritchard’s Ilse, although I’ve yet to see a performer I didn’t love play the part in this musical. Steffi, however, is a scene-stealer in this key role. I will always be attached to Lauren’s particular vocal style, but in terms of portrayal and personality, Steffi creates such a multi-dimensional character from so few lines. And given that her big scene is set alongside the phenomenal Blake Bashoff, whose every nuance is finely tuned to elicit the right laugh or sympathetic tear, it’s something she must do to hold the balance. She does it brilliantly, each night spinning her inflections and tone in a different direction, forcing an improvisation from Bashoff that she, in turn, responds to. It’s one of the highlights of the peformance to see what she’ll do on a given day, which makes her my favourite Ilse now overall.
Those of us in Toronto were greeted with an incredible surprise in the extended guest run of Matt Doyle as Melchior while Kyle Riabko departed to film a TV pilot. Having seen Matt’s Hanschen on Broadway, I already knew that he had the vocal skills to carry such a key role. But given that Hanschen is such a different animal from Melchior, I wondered at how well his interpretation would fare against my lone experience with Jonathan Groff. As it turns out, Melchior is the role Matt Doyle was meant to play, and I feel tremendously lucky to have seen him, and so many times at that.
It should be said that Melchior is a crucial character for me, in that he can be portrayed in several different ways that are all valid interpretations of the source material. However, as is said in the piece, “all roads end in you”, which means, to me, that the audience should be able to sympathize with and care about Melchior. While a more cynical portrayal of his character, evoking a more stand-offish or aloof nature, is believable and legitmate, I find actors whose Melchior treats Wendla in a predatory or dismissive manhner much less appealing. When Melchior is lying in the graveyard at the end, I need to believe that he is genuinely sorry and broken-hearted over his losses. To believe that, I must believe in Melchior and Wendla’s love. Cold Melchiors simply do not make me believe. Matt Doyle is not, by any means, a cold Melchior. He is certainly somewhat emotionally detached, his intellect suppressing his more emotional reactions, but you feel a sense of concern and care in him throughout his performance towards both Moritz and Wendla, which sells his devastation in the final scenes of the show. Striking an incredible balance between ‘wise beyond his years’ intelligence and equal parts emotional confusion and uncertainty, Matt Doyle succeeds flawlessly in this role for me. I wish him tremendous future success.
Without question, Gabrielle has a wonderful and strong singing voice, pipes on par with original Anna Phoebe Strole. She also plays a wonderfully sympathetic but strong friend to Martha when she reveals the terrible truth of her father’s abuse, firmly declaring her character’s more Liberal views with a passionate zeal. She’s unfortunately stuck with the one line of dialogue in the entire musical that is a complete clunker, which is a shame. I’m actually very curious to see how she would take on Ilse in the show, simply because I feel she’s almost too strong of a presence for Anna, who for all her speech is not as worldly as Ilse. Anna seems tricky to play, in a sense, because one could play her as a more angry/firm character or play her with a more childlike energy that suddenly shifts to indignant anger at revelations of abuse. I’m not certain which I prefer, but I wish Anna had more lines to flesh her character out and allow Gabrielle to shine more.
I really love Kimiko’s take on the character of Thea. Her take on her leaves one feeling she is at once very young in mind, but also the most hormonal, perhaps rocketing through puberty in a manner similar to Moritz, only with a more relaxed ‘go with the flow’ feel for the situation as opposed to Moritz’s overanalysis. She brightens the entire stage with her tremendous energy and spirited delivery, and absolutely steals the boy talk time prior to My Junk. Her facial expressions are particularly evocative and endearing, and she certainly has everything it would take to be a lead in a production. With any luck, this will be her launching point for a larger role in her future.
Sarah had tremendous shoes to fill for me, as Lilli Cooper’s performance devastated me on Broadway last year in every way possible. Her challenge was on par with that faced by Christy after my sole Wendla experience being Lea Michele. What strikes you at first is that her vocals during The Dark I Know Well seem almost shaky at points – not in the sense that she cannot hit her notes, but rather, that she is simply that overcome with the emotion of what is a powerful song that I personally hold dear. My appreciation for her heartbreaking performance only grew as she sat beside me on stage that first night, and I realized that Sarah was full-out crying. That complete immersion in her role, in the world of her much mistreated character, makes her performance so charged, she will be a near impossible act to follow for any actor I see in the future. I am in awe each time I see her.
Anthony Lee Medina:
I could tell you in words how much energy Anthony pours into his role as Otto. I could attempt to convey how much he plays up to the on stage audience and house seating, with his smiles, gestures, cartwheels and so on. I could point out his incredible voice that delivers a beautiful solo during Touch Me that you wish were longer. Words would never truly do him justice, though. He has to be seen to be believed. For such a supporting role, he, like Kimiko Glenn, steals scenes with even a simple facial expression that just fits so perfectly with his character’s generally happy nature (even if Mariana won’t call him back). Several friends have agreed with me that his brand of exuberance would be well suited to a dynamic crowd-pleaser role like Angel in Rent, as an example. He, like so many of the supporting cast, seems destined and made for a larger role; I’m sure one will find him soon enough.
There is a particularly fine line to balance with the character of Hanschen, who comes off as harsh or predatory in many scenes of Spring Awakening. The crux of it is this: in my mind, the audience should still wish to root for him in his pursuit of Ernst, or the all too brief Vineyard scene in Act 2 becomes another spot of negativity in the sense that the audience may walk away thinking, “God, poor Moritz, poor Melchior, and now Ernst is falling victim to this cruel boy?” What Andy manages to do beautifully is create moments of vulnerability in the bravado and conviction that make you want to love Hanschen in spite of his previous comments and actions. He brings more humanity to the role than I have seen before, in careful little ways. A stellar performance all around.
Ernst is such a lovable, fun character. His naivete slays me every single time in the vineyard scene and even people in the audience not pleased with the homosexual nature of the scene unfolding cannot help but be charmed by him. Ben plays this character so well, bringing together an infectious smiling belief in his ‘country pastor’ dreams and subtle facial expressions that betray a reluctance over what exactly Hanschen is talking about with this “I’m gonna bruise you” business he’s on about. He, in short, plays the perfect willing prey to Andy’s not-so-bad predator, and together, they deliver my favourite Hanschen-Ernst combination that I’ve seen performed.
Angela is easily my favourite Adult Women portrayer, hands down. Moreso than anyone else I’ve witnessed, Angela truly makes each women she portrays distinct in spite of few changes in costume, and delivers certain lines with such hilarious touches that I laugh until it almost hurts. She also plays Wendla’s angry mother in a way that is so enraged and self-centred, it makes Wendla’s defiant Whispering even more charged on its heels. Her ability to shift easily and quickly from furious mother to heartbroken and defeated in the face of the letter Melchior’s father presents as support in his argument to send Melchior away always blows me away.
I’m just going to come right out and say it off the top: I firmly believe Perry Sherman should be a full-time portrayer of Melchior, and has the potential to be the best at the role, given further experience with it (similar to how Blake Bashoff has grown from an impressive and solid Moritz to one that leaves me absolutely astonished at each performance). As noted when discussing Matt Doyle’s take, for me, it’s important that Melchior be someone that you can care about, someone you could believe as genuinely loving Wendla. In a sense, Wendla is so sweet and precocious that too harsh of a Melchior makes you feel as if he is taking advantage of such a sweet girl. To sympathize with him, he too must come off as still a little naive. Perry manages it beautifully. His take on the role is unique in little ways that further soften Melchior’s character from the original date-rapist in Wedekind’s work to a naive boy who almost doesn’t fully appreciate the knowledge he has from books, as if he knows it but doesn’t truly know the ramifications (which works beautifully for how Melchior knew so much about sex yet seemed genuinely shocked Wendla became pregnant, even as Herr Gabor notes he understood the mechanics of pregnancy). His performance of Those You’ve Known at Toronto’s first performance was as gut-wrenching as Jonathan Groff’s last show, where everyone was pretty much ready to weep all night, which I found commendable for an understudy slipping into a role he’s portrayed only a handful of times. Fans of Matt Doyle’s approach to the character will absolutely love his take; they’re very similar creatures, although certain moments (for example, the utter fragility in the way he says to Wendla, “But I hurt you”) add a shade more fumbling innocence to the character, making him that much more likable. Look out for this one; he’s got the pipes and skill to go far.
I have a lot of fun watching Matt’s Georg, particularly during My Junk. He throws himself into the hilarious fantasy of making out with his piano teacher with a zet that makes me laugh until my chest hurts. His little devious moments peppered throughout the production (defiant faces and gestures at the frozen Henry Stram during The Bitch of Living) and beautiful Touch Me solo are a treat to behold, and he’s probably my favourite of the supporting boys in the reformatory scene, simply for the contrast between his nervous oversexed piano student and assertive bullying boss. For those making return trips to the theatre, try following Shingledecker for an entire show during the larger numbers. He’s always up to something worth noticing – trust me. Henry Stram:
The more I watch Henry Stram, the more taken I am with his version of the Adult Men, so much so that I’m going to have to declare him my favourite portrayer to date. As with Angela Reed, Henry makes a concerted effort to play out each male so uniquely, I can’t help but be impressed. In particular, I really enjoy his take as Moritz’s father, both when condemning his son’s scholastic failure, where he seems not only furious but devastated for Moritz, in a sense mourning ‘what could/should have been’ as well as his own sense of being let down and ashamed by his lack of progress, and when he has his moment of weeping at the funeral. There’s just something rather genuine there, a feeling that as hard as he was on his son, he did so out of love for him, which makes the end of Moritz’s story even more tragic. His choice in the opening school scenes to employ a condescending higher pitched tone at points is also a high point for me in his portrayals.
To perform the demanding schedule that a musical such as this entails is hard enough on a young actor, but to do so while moving constantly from city to city, unsure of how audiences will receive the controversial material is also a daunting task. It is to their credit that this, the first touring cast of Spring Awakening, does so while smiling and enthusiastically giving their all each night, with a calibre of cast that honours the original Broadway ensemble’s hard rock in making Spring Awakening the success that it is.
For information on performances in London and the touring cast, click to visit the official site.
For some fun, look up the cast’s behind the scenes videos on YouTube via the TotallyTrucked channel.