Adolescence and Angst in Bloom at Spring Awakening

A rock musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre looks at youthful energy, sexuality, and repression. Spring Awakening runs through June 30.


Long ago in my giddy youth, I was living in New York City when an out-of-town friend scored a pair of standing-room tickets to the O.G. run of Spring Awakening at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. (Okay, the real O.G. run would’ve been catching it at the Atlantic Theatre Company downtown. I’m cool, but I’m not that cool.) And while overall I can’t say it’s one of my favorite musicals, there was a grit and an energy, an audacity to it that won me over in the end. All that and (I’m sorry to say) certain elements of the piece grow more relevant by the day. So it saddens me to say that although the look of the production currently running at The 5th Avenue Theatre is lovely, much of the punk rock spirit has been sapped from the show, leaving a piece that’s long on pathos, short on much of anything else. 

Alexander Kilian as Moritz (center) with the cast of Spring Awakening at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo by Tracy Martin.

Spring Awakening, adapted from an oft-censored 1891 play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, has as its central thesis that the kids aren’t alright. Good girl Wendla (Caitlin Sarwono) can’t get her mother to offer any other explanation for where babies come from than “the stork,” while golden boy Melchior (Ricky Spaulding) gets beaten for challenging his teachers’ established wisdom, and misfit Moritz (Alexander Kilian) can’t stop obsessing about sex. Repressed homosexuality, incest, sadomasochism, back-alley abortions — this show’s got it all.

This seething cauldron of repression and teen angst finds its natural outlet in a traditional source: rock music, with a collection of songs from pop musician Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater that include such gems as “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.” True to its source material, the musical eventually descends into tragedy as Wendla and Melchior, our star-crossed lovers, and even poor feckless Moritz, are chewed up and spit out by the system. Still, the hope that things can get better infuses the show’s final number. 

Ricky Spaulding (Melchior) and Caitlin Sarwono (Wendla) in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Tracy Martin.

The image of German school boys in their woolen jackets and stockings pulling microphones out and belting out rock anthems formed the impetus for much of the show’s development, as described by the show’s first director, Michael Mayer. Mayer collaborated heavily with Sater and Sheik through the show’s early life in workshops, concert performances, off-Broadway run, and eventual Broadway run. There’s a pleasantly anachronistic feeling to it all, and that same feeling of dissonance coupled with the universality of the emotions expressed carries the show. 

The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production, directed by Jay Santos, is just a little too … tidy. All the sex and the rebellion are still there, but the energy just feels too polite. This, coupled with a lack of chemistry between our two leads, doesn’t offer much to keep the audience’s attention, especially when the actors — despite being individually mic’d — were frequently overpowered by the show’s orchestra at the back of the stage. Sarwono has a lovely voice, but never brought much depth to her portrayal of Wendla, and while Spaulding excelled in playing the more comedic aspects of Melchior, his vocals were among the most drowned-out of the cast. Together, the two just never managed to bring much life or color to their romantic scenes. 

Kilian has some nice moments as the twitchy, tortured Moritz, but takes the character from zero to 60 emotionally by the time his character exits the piece, without showing us much of the journey in between. James Schilling is a standout as nasty boy Hanschen, while CJ Lorentz, who played schoolboy Georg in the performance I saw, showcased some impressive vocal runs in Act I’s “Touch Me.” And Ciara Alyse Harris shone in the haunting “The Dark I Know Well,” which she sang and acted to perfection.

But the show’s most insurmountable issue was the balance between vocals and orchestration. Ensemble numbers with overlapping verses — like the iconic “The Bitch of Living” — were largely incomprehensible, while several actors, Spaulding most notably, could barely be understood in solo numbers. I know I’m harping on this, but come on, guys — it’s a musical. If I can’t hear the songs, what’re we all doing here? 

Visually, the production’s gorgeous. Scenic designer Matthew Smucker offers us a mostly bare stage oppressed by a raked white roof, with a bare tree branch pushing through a gap in the ceiling. Presumably meant to evoke how nature pushes back against sterility and repression, the white ceiling is a convenient bare canvas, which can be suffused with color or used as a backdrop for looming shadows. And the costumes (by Danielle Nieves) are a delight, full of intricate patterns and textures (which are showcased in a hands-on lobby display that I found thoroughly fascinating). But the show’s visuals, lovely as they are, can’t overcome the production’s shortcomings.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to bring my own history with the show to bear on The 5th’s production and to thus find it wanting. But the fact is I’ve seen this show and what it can be. That knowledge, coupled with the show’s eerily prescient focus on teen mental health, means I went in expecting more and came out underwhelmed. 

Spring Awakening runs through 6/30 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets ($49+) here. Accessibility notes: main floor (accessible) and basement restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; upper level restrooms are gendered and multi-stall. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL interpreted and open-captioned performance on 6/23 (matinee); additional open-captioned performance on 6/21 (evening); audio-described performance on 6/29 (matinee). See notes on ticketing page for more information. Financial accessibility note: rush tickets (same-day, in-person) offered for all performances when available.

Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with intermission. 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.