The Austin Chronicle

Mary Moody Northen Theatre's Spring Awakening

In this production at St. Edward's University, the use of movement adds emphasis to the musical's sex-positive moral

Reviewed by Lilli Hime, April 12, 2019, Arts

Audiences have never seen foreplay like this. In Mary Moody Northen Theatre's production of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, the climactic scene is stunning not in its explicit depiction of sex but in the intimacy it communicates without it. Rather than – or perhaps in their own version of – foreplay, the two main characters display an innocence in touch, one tracing the frame of the other's body with a tender curiosity, as if discovering it for the first time.

The cast of St. Edward's University students moves audiences toward the truth of sexuality as something natural and without shame by grounding it in the body. The expertise of director Danny Herman and choreographer Rocker Verastique shines through each actor as the entire ensemble becomes an electrifying conduit for movement to take center stage.

Herman takes the musical's iconic choreography of innocent body exploration and sprinkles it intentionally throughout scenes to frame sexuality not only as a personal relationship with one's own body but also as a universal exploration. This artistic choice stands out in the song "The Word of Your Body," where rather than following the innocent bashfulness expected of their first romantic encounter, Wendla and Melchior – played by Natalia Garza and Jackson Pant, respectively – engage in semi-surreal motions, from a roundabout flourish of their hands en route to joining, to the emblematic balance of the duo standing back to back, hand in hand, leaning forward to strike a perfect balance where their only support is each other.

Conversely, we see movement used to show the deterioration of a body at war with itself, as seen in Weston Smith's jittery, hunched over, yet excellent comedic depiction of Moritz. The epitome of anxiety, Smith's talented portrayal demonstrates the torturous results of a body steeped in shame and taught to resist its own nature. His eventual death is all the more tragic because it derives from his inability to reconcile this societally created tension.

Another aspect of movement is the artful blocking between the raised platforms and the ground stage, utilized to create levels of maturity. Where the platforms are a place of adulthood and the lower stage a place of adolescence, they not only display the power dynamic between adults and children but also provide more meaning when characters ascend or descend, from the headmaster descending to reprimand the class of boys to Moritz furtively sneaking up to the dean's office to check his test score. There's also an added meaning, as we see ascending as part of the dark side of growing up: the loss of innocence. We see this during Moritz's funeral scene when the cast of kids, one by one, drops flowers into the grave and ascends to the southeast platform; or when Melchior finds himself the martyr, sitting above everyone as Wendla, lower stage, is treated more like a child after being found pregnant, losing what little autonomy she has.

And MMNT's usual intuition of when to reinterpret elements of a play and when to stay tried-and-true holds fast in the musical's leading couple. Pant's take on Melchior as the tortured soul who questions society continues to embody the pangs of growing up, losing innocence, and gaining knowledge in a world where ignorance is bliss. On the other hand, Garza reinterprets Wendla less with the innocent, doe-eyed elements we're accustomed to than with a 21st century fire. Her confidence and driving curiosity claim women's natural right to sexuality, bucking shame at the door.

This rendition's strong base in movement reminds us how grounded in the body sexuality is, how natural and universal it is, and in doing so questions why we've made it into anything more than natural. As Melchior says in one of his more humble yet altogether bright lines, "Shame is nothing but a product of education."

Spring Awakening

Mary Moody Northen The­atre at St. Edward’s Univ., 3001 S. Congress
Through April 14
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.