Review: Spring Awakening Feels a Little Sleepy in New East West Players Production

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony-winning musical is currently running in Los Angeles.

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Jaylen Baham (center) and the cast of Spring Awakening perform “Touch Me”
(© Jenny Graham)

East West Players, the oldest Asian American Theatre in the US, has often taken Broadway musicals and given them a fresh spin. This season, the theater company has taken on the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening, based on Frank Wedekind’s play. The production features many excellent performances, and a focus on the strife that modern-day American teens endure. But not all elements cohere as well as past in East West productions.

Spring Awakening, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics and book by Steven Sater, collides the sensibility of the 1890s with the raw sexuality and rock-n-roll influences of 2006, which is when the musical launched in New York. Melchior (Thomas Winter) and Wendla (Mia Sempertegui) cannot control the yearnings in their bodies, which are intensified by the repressive society of teachers, politicians, and especially parents who fear and demonize sexuality. The two fall in love but are tormented by this love and punished for their supposed waywardness. All the town’s teens are equally confused and simultaneously disposed of by the cruel authority figures, including Moritz (played by Jaylen Baham in the performance I attended), a boy dismissed by his teachers and abandoned by his father for not being as studious as the adults require, and Ilse (Madison Grepo), who had escaped to an artists’ colony only to be continuously manhandled by much older men.

Sheik and Sater’s score reflects the children’s pain in songs like “The Guilty Ones” and “Totally F*cked”— rebellious anthems breaking the students temporarily out of their prisons. In their songs, the students are rock stars, impervious to the confinements and abuse inflicted on them.

Sempertegui is heartbreaking as the lost lamb. Her voice is tinged in tragedy and beauty. Winter is problematic in his first professional role. He has an outstanding voice yet hasn’t found the tools to bring the audience to him. His stage presence is muted, and he portrays smugness in the character that seems ill-fitting. Grepo is also gifted with a piercing voice, and like Sempertegui, leaves the audience desperate to protect her from the wolves.

The performance I saw featured several understudies, but most gave stellar performances. CJ Cruz is a serious find as Georg. His voice can shatter souls with its intensity, and even when in the background, he draws the focus. In the adult women roles, Sarah Marie Hernandez has wicked comic timing, and manages to be both cruelly funny as the school mistress, and empathetic as Melchior’s mother. James Everts is equally good in the male adult roles, playing various supercilious professors and fathers who deserve no child’s love or respect.

Baham brings youthful exuberance to his role but can be stiff at times. Eric Renna is beguiling as the sexually free Hänschen. His love duet with Ernst (Genki Hall), “The Word of Your Body,” feels dangerous, transforming the audience into voyeurs. The young female team sound fantastic together, particularly in the opening of “Mama Who Bore Me” and “My Junk.”  The young male cast, though, do not gel as well musically, and it’s hard at times to hear their lyrics when together in numbers like “The Bitch of Living.”

Choreographer Preston Mui captures the raucousness threatening to erupt from the youths. At times, he cleverly portrays them as marionettes, controlled by a contemptuous society. Musical director and conductor Marc Macalintal does extraordinary things with a small orchestra to make it sound vibrant. Curiously, Christopher Scott Murillo’s set looks like a high school production of Romeo & Juliet, with colored lights entwined on the set like a Vegas showroom. The intentions behind this set are puzzling.

Director Tim Dang clearly draws parallels between the events in the play and today’s strife, where the younger generation have discovered their bodies no longer belong to them, thanks to greedy politicians stealing votes from a heavily religious contingency. By focusing on how repression affects and destroys us today, he enlivens the text, but the production fails to feel as professional as past East West productions have been.

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Spring Awakening

Final performance: December 3, 2023