Ricky Spaulding (Melchior) and Caitlin Sarwono (Wendla) in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening.
Photo by Tracy Martin

Spring is almost over, but the 5th Avenue Theatre celebrated Spring of 2024 by presenting Spring Awakening, the rock-music adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play.  With music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, this drama set in 19th-centure Germany premiered on Broadway in 2006.

Spring Awakening is the story of a group of teenagers who struggle with their adolescent yearnings while enmeshed in the strict moral codes of their times.  While exploring their passions and experiencing failure in school, the teens face dangers include abuse, homelessness, violence, and death.

Now, the show is playing at the 5th, and Caitlin Sarwono is starring in the lead role of Wendla, a teenage girl who journeys from naïve innocence to tragic loss.  As Sarwono shared in an interview with the 5th Avenue staff, “by the time you get to the song Whispering, you really get to see the complex emotions and thoughts she endures and how she grows out of that innocence.”

Portraying such emotion is not easy, as Sarwono told us in a recent interview. “I think the most challenging aspect has been how much heavy material is in this show,” she said. “I think it can be easy to get sucked in and consumed by our emotions, so I’ve had to find the line between being able to authentically convey everything onstage to serve our story and not letting the weight affect me as the actor in my personal life.”

Sarwono first engaged with Spring Awakening while still in college at the University of Washington, where she participated in the musical theatre club RSO Stage Notes. The club produced Spring Awakening, and Sarwono served as the music director while completing her degree in music education.

The cast of Spring Awakening at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Now as a performer, Sarwono is digging into the harrowing details of the social and historical milieux of the show. “Spring Awakening is getting me out of my comfort zone and it’s really pushing me artistically,” Sarwono told an interviewer with the University of Washington Daily last month. “I’m used to the Disney Princess track, but with something like this we’re diving so deep into the text and the history, and all the unearthed trauma that comes with this show.”

Sarwono says that Whispering, in which Wendla ponders her circumstances and finds hope for the future, is her favorite song sung by her character. “It is just so poetic and heartbreaking,” she said, “especially with Melchior’s echoes and the mirroring you see take place.”

She also reports that her fellow actor Ricky Spaulding, who plays Melchior, has made her work easier. “From the moment we read together at callbacks, I felt the chemistry we had as Melchior and Wendla,” she shared.“There was immediately so much trust, and throughout this process that has never wavered, it has only grown.”

Despite the sad outcomes for some of the teens, Sarwono still finds hope in the core story of Spring Awakening. “I think it encourages young people to be curious, ask questions, and fight for answers,” Sarwono told her 5th Avenue interviewers.“It also gives the message of hope and moving forward even when things can feel so low.”

Sarwono had previously debuted at the 5th Avenue Theatre last year, as the understudy for Ariel in The Little Mermaid, performing the title role from October 6 through 8. Around the same time, Sarwono teamed up with musical project Parachutes and Promises, singing on their second single entitled Magnetic.  Parachutes and Promises producer and drummer jtso lauded Sarwono, saying, “Caitlin has tremendous range as a vocalist, going from soulful and intimate to face-melting energy.”

The cast of Spring Awakening at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

In college, Sarwono had initially enrolled in the School of Drama at the University of Washington, before switching her major to music education. Her connection to RSO Stage Notes continues, returning to teach audition workshops to current club members.

As an educator, Sarwono also splits her time between Lakeview and Ben Franklin Elementary as a music teacher and Redmond Academy of Theatre Arts as a voice teacher and music director. As an alumna of Redmond Academy, Sarwono performed the role of Maggie in the first Young Professionals production of A Chorus Line, as well as fourteen other roles.

Looking ahead, Sarwono dreams of playing the role of Young Allie in The Notebook, another musical about teenagers in love. She saw the musical in New York in February, and it has now become her newest favorite – and her next goal to strive for.

‘Spring Awakening’ runs through June 30 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, Seattle.

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