I first saw “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical about adults who fail their children by confining them to sexual ignorance, over 15 years ago. For a whole host of reasons, I doubt this show will get made now, certainly not without a lot of angst in the process. But at the Porchlight Music Theater on Saturday, I was struck by how resilient this superb material was to our changing timing. The Tony Award went to the right show that year.
“Spring Awakening” is a tricky beast, not least because many of the quirky choices made by original director Michael Mayer seem embedded in the material. Essentially, the show’s creative team created a global device: the schoolchildren first imagined by Frank Wedekind in his play of the same name inhabit Germany at the end of the 19th century. But when they sing about their feelings and emotions, they pull microphones out of their dresses or breast pockets and sway their hips. Bill T. Jones’ original choreography, a kind of emotive punk expressionism, also haunts the show.
That said, Brenda Didier, the director and choreographer of the new Chicago production of Porchlight, has all kinds of fresh ideas. It retains this basic structure, as above, but avoids the strong original declension, preferring a more organic approach. It works very well. She makes good use of the intimate setting and the wide stage, spreading the group (I believe these are the original orchestrations without much adjustment) around the space so that the music envelops the performers well. And, above all, it avoids the sentimentality of this show’s other local treatments, retaining the sense of humor in material designed above all to show the spirit and resilience of young people. You get the impression here of ordinary children, not Broadway actors, smart and vital and just needing to be set free. Everything is very moving.
Much of that stemmed from a truly knockout performance by 18-year-old Maya Lou Hlava in the lead role of Wendla. Hlava is an experienced actress although still a senior at Evanston Township High School and, frankly, she does things here that few 18-year-olds have learned to do on stage. Most notable is his lived presence, his ability to stay in the moment and make every song appear felt and experienced in real time. Add to that a pitch-perfect vocal performance and a deep understanding of his character and you have a really good job that bodes incredibly well. If she can do all that now, who knows what she’ll be able to do in the future.
Didier skewed the entire cast fairly young, as befits it, though that still meant Hlava was working with college graduates. The rest of the young main cast – Ariana Burks as Martha, Jack DeCesare as Melchior, Quinn Kelch as Moritz, Maddy Kelly as Thea, John Marshall Jr. as Hanschen – all feel fully authentic, and the voice work ranges from solid to excellent. I’ve always thought adult authority figures, played here by McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell, were underwritten and overly stereotypical, but Carter mostly does what she can to humanize a character in a musical that needs to be very criticism of teachers and parents to work.
But it’s Hlava’s Wendla who functions as the show’s moral conscience and whose relationship with DeCesare’s Melchior seems as real as it gets.
If you’ve never seen “Spring Awakening” or want to relive a score that broke many tired rules back then, here’s your chance. This is the best local production of this work to date: Porchlight has developed an enveloping experience and a reminder that big, young ensembles have always been Chicago theatre’s greatest strength.
Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.
Review: “Spring Awakening”
When: Until June 2
Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $42-74 at 773-777-9884 or porchlightmusictheater.org