Young cast helps make Vanguard Theater’s ‘Spring Awakening’ an exhilarating experience

by JACQUELINE LARCARA
spring awakening review

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“Spring Awakening” runs at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair through July 16.

The school year is over but the Vanguard Theater’s current run of “Spring Awakening” teaches audiences a powerful lesson about the consequences of shielding children from the truth.

Before entering the Montclair theater, I knew just three things about Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 rock musical set in 19th century Germany: the show follows a group of teenagers during their sexual awakening; it garnered several Tony Awards, including Best Musical; and Jonathan Groff played Melchior to Lea Michele’s Wendla during the Broadway run.

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Benji Santiago and Shania Mundy play Melchior and Wendla in “Spring Awakening” at the Vanguard Theater.

During Vanguard’s two-hour production (which had a bumpy start on the night I attended due to an electrical outage that caused a 20-minute delay), the audience experienced a deep, unrestrained dive into the phase of life between childhood and adulthood. The forlorn points reminded me of “Romeo and Juliet” with heartbreaking portrayals of young people grappling to figure out the world. The high-energy songs are reminiscent of “High School Musical,” if it dared to portray masturbation, sex and abuse; incorporate obscenities into the lyrics; and, in one of my favorite comedic moments, have the cast flip off the audience.

It’s wacky. It’s weird. It’s real.

I was most impressed by the level of vulnerability that the Vanguard cast achieved. Mainly composed of college students, recent graduates and even high school students, this cast excels at portraying adolescents who are navigating complex obstacles (even if, vocally, there were a few moments when certain actors didn’t quite hit the mark).

Wendla is played by Shania Mundy, whose strong, controlled voice and poised stage presence make her an endearing protagonist. Mundy captures the innocent curiosity of this character in the opening scene, as she asks her mother how babies are made. Her mother struggles for an explanation and ultimately says, “for a woman to bear a child, she must … love her husband … with her whole … heart. There. Now, you know everything.” Suspicious, Wendla inquires, “everything?”

This insufficient explanation is followed by the exhilarating “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise).” Begging to know the truth, fellow female classmates join Wendla as they proudly stomp and sing this rallying cry.

Not long after, the sexual, angsty and cathartic “The Bitch of Living” number begins. The male students doodle breasts and scribble curse words on their mini-blackboards and reveal them to the audience as they raucously sing and dance. I simultaneously was taken aback by this crudeness and loved the show of rebellion.

This young, energetic cast truly lets go of all inhibitions and their talents shine during these rock anthems.

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Jake Wernecke, center, and others in “Spring Awakening.”

Another eye-popping moment comes when Hänschen, played by Jake Wernecke, is reading a passage from a book. He sneaks his hand under his nightshirt and begins masturbating. Chuckles come from the audience as his father interrupts by knocking on the door multiple times. Kudos to Wernecke for tackling this onstage feat.

Along the way we get to know Melchior, the male protagonist with anti-establishment morals that make him so charming. Benji Santiago’s charisma is well-suited for this role and he effectively embodies this character, the most mature and advanced of the teenagers.

His best friend Moritz is played by Timmy Thompson, who skillfully portrays the nervous, unsure character, and incorporates some excellent modern dance skills.

During “Touch Me,” two characters in the ensemble — Georg, played by Chokwe, and Otto, played by William Maus — step into the spotlight. Their duet was fantastic. Chokwe has a voice so commanding it caused the teenage audience members sitting in front of me to squeal. Maus’ bravado was captivating during this number and any other time he took the stage.

I experienced great nostalgia for my teen years during “The Word of Your Body,” as Melchior and Wendla flirt and anxiously hold hands for the first time.

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Emma McDonough, left, and Elise Killian in “Spring Awakening.”

At this point in the musical, just about halfway through, I expected it to continue as a wild tale of teenage angst, exploration and horniness. It takes a dark turn, through, when Martha, played by Emma McDonough, confesses, “Papa beats me enough as it is.” She’s scared and bitter as she sings, “There’s a part I can’t tell about the dark I know well.” Tears run down her face. Eventually, Ilse, played by Elise Killian, joins her in this powerful song about abuse. Another example of a duet from ensemble members that is excellent and moving.

Wendla is so shaken to learn that Martha is beaten by her father that she begs Melchior to hit her so she can know what it feels like. “My whole life, I’ve never felt anything,” Wendla says. Melchior works himself into a rage and beats her before running away, leaving her weeping.

Meanwhile Moritz, who has flunked out of school, approaches his father to tell him the news. Barely able to get the words out, Moritz asks, “What would happen if I failed?” His father slaps him. Through Thompson’s great ability to lose himself in this character, you feel the progression of Moritz’s mental health crisis, which ultimately leads to him taking his own life.

Wrestling to understand their previous violent encounter, Melchior says to Wendla, “something in me started when I hit you.” Yearning to feel something more, they engage in an incredibly vulnerable yet tasteful sex scene.

It takes a little too long to get to the energizing “Totally Fucked” song, a reaction to the internal conflict Melchior experiences when the school headmasters try to blame Moritz’s death on Melchior and his essay about sex that he gave to Moritz. (When I went home after this production, I watched the Broadway cast’s performance at the Tonys in 2007, which included “Totally Fucked.” I must say, the Vanguard cast’s version of this song was flat-out better.)

A doctor reveals to Wendla’s mom that the young girl is pregnant. Harking back to their conversation in the opening scene, Wendla wails, “Why didn’t you tell me everything?” It is clear that Wendla truly didn’t know that sex could result in pregnancy.

In the final scene, Ilse returns to the stage and leads the cast in the powerful “The Song of Purple Summer.” She beautifully sings a line that sums up the main lesson that has been the undercurrent throughout the musical: “Listen to what’s in the heart of a child.”

Vanguard Theater presents “Spring Awakening” through July 16; visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.


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