Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spring Awakening
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Sydney Hassler, Declan Skaggs,
and Jack Yampolsky

Photo by Jason Walz
Centering around a group of high school students in 1890s Germany, the Tony-winning pop-rock musical Spring Awakening tackles issues that continue to impact young adults today, including sexual awakening and teen suicide. With direction that provides a rich clarity and connection with the material, and featuring an age-appropriate cast of teenagers who excel in portraying the young adults as they navigate the harsh realities of life, Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production of this mature musical is outstanding. The authenticity and raw talent of the cast add powerful depth to the characters' coming of age struggles which, making this production extremely compelling and profoundly relevant.

Spring Awakening explores the lives of teenagers discovering their sexuality in an era when they receive little information or guidance from the adults around them. The plot revolves around three central characters. Wendla, a young teenage girl curious about the origins of babies, receives a vague explanation from her mother that to conceive, a woman must love her husband completely, which is hardly clear information for a curious adolescent. Meanwhile, close school friends Melchior and Moritz grapple with profound questions about life while forced to deal with authority figures who enforce strict discipline and the stirrings of their own burgeoning sexuality that feature vivid dreams and thoughts. Their friends find themselves faced with their own similar issues.

Composer Duncan Sheik and bookwriter and lyricist Steven Sater adapted their musical from Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play of the same name. The show addresses intense themes such as rape, suicide, abortion, child abuse, and homosexuality, highlighting why the original play caused such a stir in the late 1890s and was initially banned in Germany.

The main theatrical device the musical of Spring Awakening employs to bridge the issues of 1890s Germany with the present day is having the characters sing in a modern pop rock style, using handheld microphones as a way to have the characters express their inner thoughts and hidden desires. Sater uses contemporary words in his lyrics while his dialogue remains true to the language of the late 1890s. This juxtaposition of past and present, while potentially odd at first, quickly creates a powerful, effective and seamless contrast, highlighting the timelessness of the characters' struggles while connecting the past to the present. In doing so, it makes the story resonate while also enhancing the emotional impact and modern-day relevance of the characters and the plot.

Co-directors Mark and Lynzee 4man bring a fresh perspective to the production, opting not to model their efforts on the highly regarded original Broadway production. Instead, they introduce original touches while eliciting realistic, heartfelt, and nuanced performances from their young cast. The show's adult content and profanity is treated respectfully and always presented with authenticity. The only changes in the content from previous productions I've seen include the use of an opaque screen during a sex scene, so the intimacy between two characters is depicted as shadows, and the omission of a moment of brief nudity–changes that do not diminish the impact of these moments aided by the contribution of intimacy director Matt Denney. The direction achieves raw and emotionally intense performances from the cast.

Sydney Hassler shines as Wendla, bringing a naïve and heartbreaking quality to the character that elicits deep empathy for her struggles. Hassler's singing is strong, clear, and deeply touching. Declan Skaggs embodies Melchior with an abundance of charm; Skaggs' handsome, boyish looks, pure voice, and clear connection to the other characters make it easy to see why Melchior is so magnetic. Together, Hassler and Skaggs create a realistic couple, effectively conveying the issues, fears, and pain their characters face. Jack Yampolsky perfectly embodies the anxiety-ridden nature of Moritz, complete with a wild hairstyle that mirrors the character's inner turmoil. Yampolsky's nervous demeanor and forceful, expressive line delivery vividly illustrate the pressure Moritz feels to succeed, making his portrayal both compelling and heartbreaking.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, featuring an ensemble with outstanding voices. Taylor Underwood portrays Ilse, the girl who ran away due to abuse. She delivers a powerful solo in act two and a very effective duet, "The Dark I Know Well," which is led by Zoey Waller. Connor Klein, Lincoln Hoekstra, Jacob Price, and Chase Harris, who play Moritz and Melchior's schoolmates, sing their solo sections with passion, force, and clarity. Grace Wiggins and Aicha Ba, who play Wendla's friends, also exhibit strong vocal performances and create distinct portrayals.

Waller effectively captures the pain of a girl abused by her father, while Klein infuses their role with plenty of arrogance and mischievous behavior. Harris impresses with a soaring voice in his solos, Hoekstra skillfully portrays naiveté, and Price is particularly effective as a student lusting after his piano teacher. Chloe Penner, Maleah McDonald, and Donovan Reza flesh out the ensemble, contributing gorgeous harmonies.

An essential part of the musical is having all the adult male and female roles played by just two actors, underscoring the idea that, despite some adult characters being more responsive to the needs of the youth, all adults are fundamentally similar at their core. Paul Yount and Mia Dickson take on the roles of the Adult Men and Adult Women, respectively. Through distinct manners and varied diction, accents, or speech patterns, they skillfully differentiate each character effectively while highlighting the universal nature of adult authority and its impact on the youth.

Madison MacDonald's energetic choreography captures the raw, turbulent feelings of adolescence, using physical movement to portray the characters' internal struggles. Rick Sandifer's set design is fairly static and simple yet works well when combined with Brady Fiscus' gorgeous and immersive lighting to portray the various locations in the show. Mickey Courtney's period perfect costumes and Carolyn McPhee Crouther's hair and make-up designs are impressive. Kenseye Fort's clear sound design is some of the best I've heard at Desert Stages. Mark 4Man's music direction achieves beautiful vocals and gorgeous harmonies from the entire cast, and the backing music tracks that he created are incredible and lush with beautiful unique touches.

Spring Awakening illustrates that the challenges and emotions faced by teenagers today closely mirror those experienced over a century ago. It also serves as a stark reminder that, despite societal progress, the understanding and support offered to adolescents by adults today still often falls short. However, despite the intense and often tragic events that unfold in the plot, the musical manages to end on a moving and uplifting note. This offers a sense of hope and resilience and an understanding that the awakening of youth, as they transition from innocence to young adults, results in informed individuals ready to take on the world and challenge social norms.

Spring Awakening runs through June 30, 2024, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please call 480-483-1664 or visit

Director: Lynzee and Mark 4man
Music Director/ Performance Trax: Mark 4man
Choreographer: Madison MacDonald
Set Design: Rick Sandifer
Lighting Design: Brady Fiscus
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Wig/Hair/Makeup Designer: Carolyn McPhee Crouther
Props Designer: Carolyn McPhee Crouther
Intimacy Director: Matt Denney
Fight Choreographer: Mark 4man
Sound Design: Kenseye Fort
Stage Manager: Kara Armstrong, Ava Sandifer

Wendla Bergmann: Sydney Hassler
Martha Bessell: Zoey Waller
Anna: Grace Wiggins
Thea: Aicha Ba
Ilse Neumann: Taylor Underwood
Adult Female: Mia Dickson
Ensemble/Female Swing: Chloe Penner
Ensemble/Female Swing: Maleah Mcdonald
Melchior Gabor: Declan Skaggs
Moritz Stiefel: Jack Yampolsky
Hänschen Rilow: Connor Klein
Ernst Röbel: Lincoln Hoekstra
Georg Zirschnitza: Jacob Price
Otto Lämmermeier: Chase Harris
Adult Male: Paul Yount
Ensemble/Male Swing: Donovan Reza