When the GDS student performers first appeared on the computer screens of a disconnected audience, Spring Awakening nonetheless immediately felt like a live, in-person musical. The students’ faces—expressing love, lust, fear and loss—could be seen clearly through transparent plastic masks. In fact, it was easy to forget that the actors were wearing face coverings at all as the costumes, sets and powerful voices of performers overtook viewers’ computers. Director Laura Rosberg said in her introduction at the show’s Zoom premiere on Friday, May 21, “We’re not filmmakers; we’re theater-makers.” That surely came across as the audience was transported into the Black Box.
Spring Awakening was written by Steven Sater with music by Duncan Sheik, and was based on a 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. The rock musical made its Broadway debut in 2006 and is both famous and infamous for its juxtaposition of mature content and young characters.
Junior Julian Galkin and senior Caleigh Vergeer, who played lovers Melchior and Wendla, respectively, delivered performances that felt entirely genuine. Galkin’s portrayal of a young man burdened with cynical wit and opposed to authority was a triumph, as was Vergeer’s rendering of a young woman struggling blindly to navigate her transition into adulthood.
To viewers unfamiliar with the plot of Spring Awakening, the show can feel like a roller-coaster. Filled with the tensions of youths struggling to follow traditional expectations, Spring Awakening switches from scenes depicting violence, to graphic discussions (and miming) of sexual acts, to poignant, heartfelt moments of love and loss.
The musical’s quick tonal changes and humor helped to reduce the audience’s discomfort with particularly intense scenes. The music perfectly matched these abrupt shifts. Most enjoyable were the rock numbers where the voice of junior Elias Rodriguez, who played Moritz, truly shined as he gripped a microphone stand that, though decorative, enhanced his stage presence with a rock-concert feel.
The set designers, seniors Emmett Freeman and Nic Moiseyev, and costume designers, juniors Eve Kolker and Miriam Akhmetshin, often kept the coloring neutral. The backdrops and school uniforms were largely limited to whites, blacks and grays. The toned-down color scheme reflected the show’s theme of forced conformity but was interrupted with musical numbers where bursts of colored light, designed by seniors Ben Adomaitis and Harrison Lundy, disrupted the monochromatic background.
Rosberg had to think outside the box for scenes written to involve physical touching among actors. “This was a show about intimacy in a time in which we couldn’t be intimate,” Rosberg said in her introductory speech. Sex and kissing scenes were mimed with choreographed motions, making them appear dance-like. Though the change was made out of necessity due to COVID restrictions, it highlighted the performers’ acting abilities with creative techniques that could be used to show physical intimacy even after the pandemic subsides. Though it wasn’t entirely clear what certain arm gestures meant, the ambiguity doesn’t hinder the audience’s understanding of the scenes’ meanings.
Another surprising highlight was the production’s intermission after the first act. The couple-minute break included a clip of instrumental background music and edited videos of the set, making the show feel even more like a live performance.
At the end of the show, after the cast members took their bows, the camera switched directions, allowing the audience to see what the actors had been looking at as they gave their performances. It came as a shock to see no cheering audience looking back at them, only more technical materials. It is not an easy task to recreate the feeling of an in-person musical theater experience, but GDS’ theater faculty, designers, cast and crew exceeded expectations. A unique benefit of the filmed show is that it remains available for viewing online, provided that you register and pay the $5 fee (a bargain compared to normal GDS shows). But don’t get me wrong: I’m excited to be back in the Black Box for next year’s spring musical.