Sunday, October 1, 2023

Anatomy of a teenager: ‘Spring Awakening’ opens for one weekend only

The cast of Opera House Theatre Company’s production of “Spring Awakening” will take the stage this weekend. (Courtesy OHTC)

WILMINGTON — Seeing a musical adaptation of a 19th century play about angsty German teenagers coming of age between their Latin lessons may not be everyone’s idea of a Saturday night out. 

READ MORE: The American dream: ‘Ragtime’ dissects immigration, racism, feminism ahead of July 4th

But with a Grammy-winning alternative rock and folk-infused score, along with a captivating cast of characters weaving together a tragedy that goes beyond a typical Bildungsroman, Opera House Theatre Company’s production of “Spring Awakening” could be the event of the weekend. And that’s just one weekend — the cast will take the Thalian Hall stage five times only beginning Friday night. 

The production is part of OHTC’s Apprentice Theatre — shows cast, crewed and designed by young artists. Who better to capture the incongruency of adolescence, not quite a child yet not an adult, than those experiencing it?

Based on Frede Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, “Spring Awakening” follows a dozen teenagers navigating their sexuality amid the repressive denial of the adults around them. With parents that refuse to be honest about sex, the naive boys and girls experience these feelings alone or in their gendered groups — expressing confusion and frustration and lamenting the oppressiveness of school.

Then Wendla and Melchior cross paths. The two act on their crushes, fumbling with their lack of knowledge and unaware of the consequences to come. 

Meanwhile, Moritz, a star student struggles with erotic thoughts and pressures to remain an A student, pivotally choosing not to confide in his childhood friend Isle (Sara Rudeseal), a homeless kid abandoned by her abusive parents. The choices these teens make, often their hands forced by adult inattentiveness, will scar their community. 

The 2006 opening of the play was lauded by critics and earned Best Musical and seven other Tony Awards, including Best Original Score and Best Book by Duncan Sheik and Stevan Sater wrote the book and lyrics for the show, with Best Performance going to  John Gallagher Jr. as Moritz. The musical also marked the beginning of careers for Broadway’s current “Funny Girl” Lea Michele (“Glee,” “Scream Queens”), Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton,” “Mindhunter”) and Skylar Astin (“Pitch Perfect,” “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”). 

OHTC has some local stars of its own — Jakob Gruntfest (Melchior) and Sydney Short (Wendla) have previously been named recipients of OHTC’s Lou Criscuolo Memorial Scholarship.  Tanner Smith (Moritz) is just coming off performing as Mother’s Younger Brother in OHTC’s “Ragtime.” 

“‘Spring Awakening’ has always been a dream show,” Short said. “I’ve always been drawn to the incredible score [and] uniqueness of the story, and the opportunity to make a new family within a show this intimate. It’s really unlike any other show I’ve ever seen.” 

Creating that sense of community and cohesion among 16 cast members, all of whom have outside jobs, on a tight schedule was a challenge. Morganna Bridgers, making her directorial debut and who also played Wendla in a 2012 City Stage production, told Port City Daily the cast only had four days of rehearsal on the fully dressed stage. Still, the group has been evolving into their characters ahead of opening night. 

“We’ve played with making a lot of different choices throughout the entire production,” Bridgers said. “But even in the final week of dress rehearsals, we’re looking at some of those moments and realizing that they don’t quite work in this production, so we are changing them to better tell our story.” 

Another challenging choice:  approaching and depicting the musical’s grim realities of teenagers grappling with situations unequipped to handle and scared to talk about.

“The dark aspects of the show were certainly intimidating to approach,” Gruntfest said. “However, our amazing director and intimacy coordinator, Morganna Bridgers and Jace Berry, made the rehearsal space a comfortable place where we could explore these topics in a real way that would allow for us to give great performances and to be able to leave it on the stage at the end of the day.” 

Smith also touched on the support from the cast and crew, noting it helped him separate himself from Moritz. 

“I would definitely have to say portraying Moritz’s mental health crisis has been a uniquely difficult experience,” Smith said. “At times it definitely became hard to not allow the dispiriting energy to spill out of the character and into myself.” 

For Bridgers, it was important to draw a clear line between the past and present. 

“The show certainly does feature some of the darkest parts of the experience of adolescence, and that’s why I think it’s essential to tell these stories,” Bridgers said. “The scary thing is that, although this show is set in 1890s Germany, many of their experiences are similar to what young people deal with today.” 

And as our society experiences the parental rights wave of banning books, outrage over teachings on race and the LGBTQ+ community, stricter control over sex-ed and crackdowns on gender-affirming care, this play might be more timely than ever. 

“I would hope this brings light to the disastrous impact censorship can have on not only our children but our society as a whole,” Smith said. “I want this story to reach so many people and touch so many hearts so that we may have a world that encourages knowledge of the mind and body.” 

Short noted she hopes the show encourages people to recognize the prevalence of the character’s feelings among today’s teens and have early conversations with young people in their lives. 

While “Spring Awakening” can resonate with youth searching for understanding — as the young adults of this show have each pointed out it has done for them — it could also be a wake-up call for adults. 

“Can we remember what it’s like to be a teenager, with all of our big feelings?” Bridgers asked. “Can that help us to reflect on our own lives, and see how we were influenced forever by our big feelings, our experiences, our choices, the pressures of culture, and the pressure from the adults around us — for better and for worse? Will that awareness allow some grace for younger generations to forge their own paths without such heavy-handed judgment? To look at our children and see who they are, and who they are becoming, and celebrate it — even if you fear the world won’t accept them for who they are?” 

“Spring Awakening” will run at Thalian Hall July 7 through July 9 at 7:30 p.m. each night, with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $28.89.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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