Arts & Culture Editor
Millersville’s level of “risqué” sky-rocketed through the roof this past weekend as “Spring Awakening” made its debut at the Clair Performance Hall in the Visual Performing Arts Center. Directed by Gene Ellis, a professor at Millersville, “Spring Awakening” explores situations most students either don’t talk about or are ashamed to openly discuss, making it all the more important.
“Spring Awakening” opens up with Wendla Bergman, played by Casey Pry, a teenage girl sheltered from the answer to the question “where do babies come from?” Mrs. Bergman, played by Laura Birkin, stresses about the fact that her daughter wants to know such a thing. Mrs. Bergman ends up telling Wendla babies result from a man and a woman who love each other more than they love anyone else. And that’s where “beating around the bush” ended in this musical.
The audience follows Wendla and love interest Melchior Gabor, played by Jeremy Hammer, through the struggles of living in a society where sex education, and sex in general, are seen as sinful and unspeakable. Wendla and Melchior end up making love to each other after the sexual tension becomes too much.
Even though the sexual scenes seemed awkward and a little funny at times to the audience, it took a great amount of energy and effort out of the actors. “I had a hard time getting into character,” said Hammer, “The age of [Melchior] was about 15 years old, which is around the time of puberty, sexual confusion, and teenage angst, which was not something I wanted to feel again.”
Wendla doesn’t understand exactly what she’s doing when she has sex with Melchior. Several times before having sex, she attempts to push him off but eventually gives into him. This creates some ambiguity in whether or not Wendla truly consented to Melchior. To Wendla’s, and eventually Melchior’s, surprise, their night together has now resulted in pregnancy.
Wendla’s friend Martha, played by Morgan Cummins, is dealing with a sexual oppression issue as well. She accidently reveals to her friends that her own father abuses her physically and sexually. Her mother disregards the abuse and lets it happens. She begs her friends not to tell of her secret. Ilse Neumann, played by Skye Hewish-Schmid, admits she had the same upbringing and is now kicked out her house. The two engage in an emotional song titled “The Dark I Know Well” where they beautifully sing, along with an ensemble of the Boys, about how the Lord doesn’t mind the sexually physical relationship between a child and her father because it’s just “you and me”. This scene and song created a great amount of anger and sadness within the audience.
Intertwined with the sexual oppression and confusion of Wendla and Melchior is the story of Moritz Stiefel, played by Jake McClellan, a classmate of Melchior’s. Moritz fails all of his tests and isn’t doing well in school. When he tells his father, played by faculty member Curtis Proctor, his father’s only concern is what the people around town will think of him. No one will help Moritz now and he is thrown out of his house.
Wandering the streets with a pistol in hand, he comes across a childhood friend Ilse who has feelings for Moritz. Ilse reminds Moritz of the wonderful childhood memories they had together and asks him to join her so they can make more memories. Despite Ilse’s pleading and begging, Moritz refuses to go with her. She leaves distraught and Moritz finally realizes she is his saving grace, but it’s too late. She’s nowhere to be found. Realizing the hole he dug even deeper for himself, he feels there is no way out and commits suicide by shooting a pistol into his mouth. The audience gasped at this explicit display of death.
McClellan felt just as much emotion playing Moritz as the audience felt when he took his life. “This was one of the most challenging roles I have ever done. He was so draining to play every night. My approach for playing Moritz was viewing him as an emotional sponge,” McClellan says, “ He is such a goofball that takes in so much confusion, frustration and hopelessness from his world. He is truly the symbol of the need for change in culture.”
Mrs. Bergman, distraught by her daughter’s pregnancy and ignorance, sends Wendla off to get an abortion. Wendla screams and fights her way as she is pushed into the arms of the doctor, played by Proctor. When Melchior finds out Wendla is pregnant, he sends her a letter asking her to meet him at the graveyard. When he arrives at the graveyard, Melchior looks down at the new graves and sees the name “Wendla Bergman” on a freshly planted tombstone. Wendla has died of anemia from an abortion gone wrong.
Melchior, with the weight of losing his best friend and now his lover, takes out a razor blade and attempts to slit his throat when he is approached by the spirits of Wendla and Moritz. They urge him to spare his life and carry on. Melchior promises to take their memory with him forever. “Spring Awakening” closes with a musical number that spreads the message of liberality and individualism. Even if the face of conservative, strict adults, a new liberal accepting generation is on its way.
Intermixed with the controversial scenes were musical numbers that swept the audience away. Hammer and Pry gave the audience a beautiful harmony while performing “The Word of Your Body”, an intimate theme sang while Melchior and Wendla have their first intimate touch. McClellan and Hewish-Schmid did a tearful rendition of “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” before Moritz took his own life. Matt Meckley blew the audience away with a high-pitched solo that exceeded everyone’s expectations. All in all, the singing performances were flawless and a treat for the ear.
“Spring Awakening” was at times awkward to watch. During the musical numbers, the characters would touch each other in ways too provocative for the public setting. “I think college students, specifically, love a good dirty joke,” says McClellan, “I think the main draw, at the beginning of the show, is how funny and awkward sex is.” During Wendla and Melchior’s sex scene, it looked almost as if the two characters were actually engaging in sexual intercourse. There were several times throughout the musical that “wet dreams” and masturbation were referenced and demonstrated.
If the sexual content is excluded, audience members had to watch Moritz put a pistol into his mouth, insinuating suicide. After that, the cast portrayed a scene where friends and family put flowers on Moritz’ grave while his father cried in agony from the pain of losing a child, a gut-wrenching tearful encounter to watch. The concept of abortion and death from abortion was introduced to audience members as well. The audience saw the bruises Martha’s father left on her that she wore as a terrifying reminder of what happens after bedtime.
Many may think this musical was way too provocative and mature, discussing situations deemed unmentionable for a college musical. On the other hand, this may be exactly what students need. Students come from all over the world and come with different knowledge backgrounds, meaning that some might not know as much about sex or abortion as others. Not having knowledge in those categories can be detrimental to a student. Sex education is important. “This show really explores sex education. It raises the concerns of sexual assault, sexual orientation and even how women get pregnant. We need explore, learn and communicate about sex. It is natural, not bad,” says McClellan. This musical shows a not-so dramatized version of what can happen to uneducated individuals.
Depression and anxiety are two common mental illnesses students battle through every day. Many individuals brush them off and pretend they don’t exist. Others think it’s taboo to talk about and don’t discuss it. However, depression and anxiety are real things that affect school work, social lives, and overall wellness. This musical shows the costs of depression and what happens when it’s not helped. Students should be able to talk about these issues openly and without judgement. Sadly, there are students, faculty members and people in the community who are or have been victims of abuse of any kinds. This musical raises those issues in a non-accepting light and shows the difficulty many of our peers go through.
One of the most important things students can take from this hard-to-swallow musical would be the will to just keep going. “Millersville students can take away hope and perseverance from this show,” says Hammer, “A lot of the topics expressed are still problems that college students face. No matter what happens in life, you have to go on.”
Millersville’s Univeristy Theatre program offers more wonderful opportunities for students to get involved and build relationships with other students. “My favorite part of working on this show was having an amazing production team who always believed in me, even in moments where I didn’t believe in myself, “ said McClellan after reflecting on his favorite part about being involved in “Spring Awakening”.
“[The cast and production staff as well as the pit, sound and lighting team] all brought the show together and created something beautiful,” says Hammer, “Everyone was so supportive of each other throughout the entire process.” Check out more opportunities to get involved in Millersville theater program that addresses the tough issues while creating a supportive, interactive, and enjoyable experience and community for its members.