“Spring Awakening” or in its original title “Frühlings Erwachen” is a somber play from the late 1800s by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Americans are becoming increasingly familiar with this drama in the form of the 2006 musical Spring Awakening.

In the current production at the Round House Theatre in the heart of Bethesda, Wilhelmine Germany meets modern U.S. youth culture. The brooding ambiance of the original is maintained, yet the piece is lightened considerably for American audiences.

For at least once per year, this rock-folk musical based on Wedekind’s play has been performed in our area. It is now being staged in an outstanding though sexually frank production at the Round House Theatre through Feb. 23.

Cristina Sastre, Sean Watkinson and Evan Daves are excellent as high school students Wendla, Melchior and Moritz. Dressed in Wilhelmine German clothing with a rock & roll edge for our time, these talented actors express passionately the pressures faced by youth, whether in late 1800s Germany or the United States of today.

Director Alan Paul and scenic designer Adam Rigg have arranged a highly stylized and austere stage, leaving it up to the viewer whether 19th century Germany or American culture is being represented. A painted backdrop of a timeless view of Adam and Eve surrounded by peaceful animals in the garden of Eden serves well to represent childhood innocence as well as the intended universality of this very German play. While the performance is unusually explicit, the seven-piece musical aggregation directly brilliantly by music director James Cunningham leans more towards folk and classical approach than rock.

“Spring Awakening” addresses burning social issues that confront adolescents, much involving sexuality and an open discussion of sexuality in the world around them. With today’s discussion of the educational problems in our society (STEM vs. STEAM, traditional vs. non-traditional forms of student assessment, etc.), the rigidity of the educational system may attract special notice as an issue in the play.

Germany, then as now, has a “tracked” system of education, in which students on the academic track must achieve high grades in a battery of standardized tests. Those who fail must come to terms with the fact that their dreams of an academic career and success will not be realized (“the upper grade holds only 60,” the educational authorities in the play gloat). Such a situation confronts high school student Moritz, who falls into anxiety and depression. His best friend Melchoir has the good fortune in their society to be gifted academically, but Melchoir’s independence of mind and spirit makes him an equally repressed character.

While modern America is not like Germany in the latter’s “tracked” educational system where relatively few can go on to academic secondary education, standardized testing and “teaching to the test” are becoming more the norm. Because those educational issues are covered in the musical, it makes the whole performance relevant for U.S. audiences today.

At times, the play is sad yet comic, as in the light it shines on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, feted in Germany as the country’s great national poet. Scientists admire him as a pioneer in the study of botany and theory of color. His dying words of “More light!” more and inspire today.  Yet the society depicted in “Spring Awakening” is so prudish that its adolescents are discouraged from reading “Faust,” Goethe’s greatest work, “at your age.” Ironically, the tragic fate of Gretchen in “Faust” begins to descend on innocent Wendla, the female protagonist of “Spring Awakening.”

“Spring Awakening” has a horrifically tragic ending in the original play “Frühlings Erwachen.” It is somewhat present here, but softened considerably with an odd, slightly upbeat ending: There is an added scene expressing hope for the future in “The Song of Purple Summer” as “the butterfly sings and opens purple summer with the flutter of its wings. The earth will wave with corn…” While this song (performed movingly by the talented cast) is a far cry from the original ending of the play, it is perhaps appropriate to a musical and also more appealing to an American audience.

“Spring Awakening” is widely read in Germany and was until the musical a rather obscure work in the United States. Yet this exciting production at the Round House and the musical’s popularity show European culture once deemed not for export can become an endearing favorite filled with relevance for U.S. audiences.

“Spring Awakening” runs until Feb. 23. For more information, visit the Round House Theatre’s website by clicking here.

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