Review: Porchlight’s Excellent Spring Awakening Rings an Alarm

Just over 130 years ago, when the German Empire was young and the 19th century was old, the German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind wrote eine Kindertragödie (the play’s subtitle) called Frühlings Erwachen—“Spring Awakening.” Wedekind’s play was a frontal assault on the stultifying bourgeoise culture of provincial Germany and featured topics like wet dreams, masturbation, illegal abortions, homoerotic attraction, teenage sexual ignorance and a Mitteleuropäische fascination with birch switches hitting bare bottoms.

It was, of course, instantly banned.,

But not forgotten. Over the years, the play has been championed by the likes of Max Reinhart and his Deutsches Theater, anarchist Emma Goldman, the beatnik-era Provincetown Playhouse, and Joe Papp’s Public Theater. Eventually, famously, Wedekind’s text was musicalized by ‘90s singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and, in 2006, won eight Tony awards and launched the careers of Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.

Now Porchlight Theatre’s dynamic production of the musical is playing, after a pandemic delay, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. True to its source material, Porchlight’s show depicts students struggling against a culture so sexually repressed and so terrified of adolescent emotion and curiosity that it is almost comical. Just how many angsty songs can you sing about frustrated yearnings and forbidden desires?

Except.

Except that it’s now 2022, not 1891, and it is illegal for a gay teacher in Florida to talk about his husband. Except that, in Texas, vigilante bounties are placed on the heads of women who choose to end their pregnancies. Except that the Supreme Court is poised to strike down reproductive freedom nationwide and more assaults are on the way against the recently won freedom to marry.

Maya Lou Hlava and Jack DeCesare. Photo by Liz Lauren.

So maybe we ought to pay attention to Spring Awakening’s young actors and the even younger characters they portray when they sing—and rail against—the tyranny masquerading as care that so oppresses them.

Porchlight’s current production certainly is worth our attention. The almost-uniformly excellent cast are aided by Jeff-award winning director and choreographer Brenda Didier’s energetic staging and Patrick Chan’s innovative lighting design on a spare set flanked by a more-than-capable onstage band. The actors literally sing from the rafters as they jump to perches high above the stage to belt Sheik’s rock and roll anthems.

Maya Lou Hlava, who portrays protagonist Wendla, is captivating as a young girl caught between her own naivete and its terrifying consequences. Hlava is a talented singer and actor who almost too easily breaks the audience’s collective heart with her sadly sweet depiction of teenager ill-used by a society (and parents) that insists on infantilizing her.

Jack DeCesare and Quinn Kelch join Hlava as the musical’s two other leads: Melchior (DeCesare), a top-of-his-class school standout, and Moritz (Kelch), a student barely hanging on by his fingertips, both of whom revolt against the pressures confining them. DeCesare’s lovely voice and sensitive portrayal convey Melchior’s bright promise spoiled by the trials awaiting him.

Quinn Kelch. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And Kelch? … Kelch’s Moritz is an emo-fired talent explosion that detonates across the theater. One part pure punk-rock adrenalin, and another part sheer vulnerability, Kelch’s performance stays with you long after you leave the theater. I happened to be sitting behind his sister when I saw the show; she is very proud of him. She should be.

Tiffany Taylor’s performance as schoolyard outcast Ilsa is also worthy of special mention. Taylor may have the most beautiful voice in the cast, plaintively displayed in a pair of duets, “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” and “The Dark I Know Well,” and, finally, in the show’s eleven o’clock number, “Purple Summer.”

Tiffany T. Taylor. Photo by Liz Lauren.

I also want to single out McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell who have the unenviable task of playing every adult character in the show. These characters are almost without exception ignorant, self-righteous and judgmental. It’s a testament to Carter’s and Mitchell’s ability that you want to hiss them during the curtain calls.

But, to slightly misquote a past president, “don’t hiss; organize.” And a good first step might be to go see this new telling of an old story: the dreadful consequences of a fearful society attempting to stifle a younger generation.

Porchlight’s Spring Awakening has been extended through June 2 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts (1016 N. Dearborn). Tickets start at $25 and are available at www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling 773.777.9884. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.