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"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard


By Carolyn M. Brown, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 06/22/2023

"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard

Vanguard Theater will present the coming-of-age musical “Spring Awakening” from June 22 through July 16. A celebration of youth and rebellion, censorship and its consequences, “Spring Awakening” fuses issues of morality and sexuality with alternative rock music into an emotionally charged story.

“’Spring Awakening’ is really an exploration of what it means to live and love in a world that strives to keep you completely in the dark about such issues as sexuality,” says Janeece Freeman-Clark, the show’s Director and Vanguard’s Founding Artistic Director. “We're not going to talk about it in our homes. We're not going to talk about it in school. We're not going to talk about it in church. This musical shows what can happen if you withhold information from young people as they wrestle with adult issues.”

"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard

Janeece Freeman-Clark

The musical’s story was originally written in 1891 by playwright Frank Wedekind. It was considered obscene and reportedly didn't premiere until 1906. The play was then adapted into the Tony Award-winning 2006 musical. Set in late 19th-century Germany, the musical tells the story of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of adolescent sexuality. “Spring Awakening” features the Grammy Award-winning alternative rock score by Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sater.

Freeman-Clark says that the relevance of “Spring Awakening” speaks to us just as much today as it did when it opened off-Broadway nearly 20 years ago, and as it did in 1891, when its source material was written and subsequently banned. “The show’s themes resonate so deeply (with so many people). Abortion rights, teen suicide, gun violence, sexual abuse, book banning; it's mind-blowing that this was written in 1891, because it so easily could have been written right now,” she adds.

Indeed, the play evokes current controversy around 2500-plus book bans across the U.S., recent laws against teaching about race and sexual orientation, calls to prohibit gender-affirming medical care for trans people, and a woman’s right to choose. Freeman-Clark believes the show’s source material itself can bring communities together, “because it gives us an opportunity to really delve deep and talk about things that you have to be pretty vulnerable to talk about. And you have to feel like you're in a really safe space to explore these topics.”



 
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There will be talkbacks after the show on select dates, which will give audiences and cast members a chance to discuss the musical’s themes. This production is recommended for ages 12 and over.

Challenging social and cultural narratives through professional theater dedicated to diversity, reciprocity, education, activism, and mentorship is the mission of Vanguard. Freeman-Clark points out that the use of color-conscious casting in “Spring Awakening” also fulfills Vanguard’s mission of giving voice and advocacy to a wider range of identities. So, while many of the show’s themes are universal, “how the characters might experience them differs based on their lived history,” she explains.

"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard

Benji Santiago

Many of the featured roles are played by actors of color, including Shania Mundy, Benji Santiago and Timothy Thompson, who play the leading roles of Wendla, Melchior and Moritz, respectively.

“Our cast reflects the world today. That is such a powerful thing,” says Santiago. “The creative team did not shy away from what it means to have BIPOC actors in these roles (the original Broadway cast was mainly white actors). We are not ignoring who we are to fit into these characters.” What Santiago admires about his character is that Melchior likes to rock the boat. “He is the primary character who is not afraid to challenge authoritative figures and defy conformity,” he explains. “Melchior also really cares so deeply about his loved ones, his friends.”

Santiago says that he was drawn to this production because “Spring Awakening” is one of those bucket list shows for a young actor, especially in the musical theater world. More importantly, he says, “Vanguard has a purpose, and they aren’t afraid to engage in the larger conversation about diversity and inclusion, (which can be polarizing for some communities). I admire that.”

Mundy, thrilled to be taking on the role of Wendla as a Black woman, is an actress best known for the TV series “Run the World” and “New Amsterdam.” “I see a lot of myself in Wendla,” she says, “because we both lacked that guidance when it came to learning about puberty. I think it's so important that this story continues to be told, because I have a feeling that we'll never stop needing to hear it and to reflect on it in the way that it forces us to reflect on ourselves.”

"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard

Shania Mundy

Mundy says she loves helping people to see things in themselves or feel things that they didn't feel safe enough to express outside of the theater. “I love touching people, telling their stories and helping them feel less alone, because I know what that is to feel alone and feel like I'm the only one who goes through this (life’s challenges).”



 
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For Thompson, “Spring Awakening” is a show that's been near and dear to his heart for the longest time. He appreciates that the musical “speaks to the importance of understanding how different people learn and respecting learning barriers or the different ways that people's brains function,” which Thompson he believes “can make all the difference between a child succeeding or failing in school, a child having high self-esteem or low self-esteem, or a child feeling depressed and developing worsening mental health effects.”

Thompson’s character Moritz struggles with mental health and suicidal ideation. “A lot of my friends in college have gone through various trials and tribulations in regard to depression and feelings of inadequacy or self-harm. And mental health is one of the leading epidemics in America at the moment, because there's so much that's still so taboo on subject,” he adds.

"Spring Awakening" Coming of Age Musical at Vanguard

Timothy Thompson

Freeman-Clark points out the significance of having Thompson as a Black man playing Moritz. “Suicide is something that's not really talked about openly in the Black community,” she says. She further notes that the suicide rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 19 has increased 30% over the past decade.

Thompson says the arts have the ability to help people see the human condition and realize where we go wrong sometimes and how that affects people. “That's how we learn (to do better). We learn through stories,” he says.

“Spring Awakening” runs from June 22 to July 16, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and up.




About the author: Carolyn M. Brown is an investigative journalist, editor, author, playwright, multimedia content producer and an entrepreneur. She has produced content spanning across a portfolio of platforms, including print, digital media, broadcast, theater arts, and custom events. Her publication credits include Essence, Forbes, Inc., and Diversity Woman magazines. She is a founding board member of the Paterson Performing Arts Development Council, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing together diverse communities through the performing arts and cultural events and to creating pathways for new and established artists.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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