Sunday, February 10, 2013

Teens Learn the Hard Way in 'Spring Awakening'

Consider the following thorny issues that society grapples with today: abortion, homelessness, child abuse, rape, unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality, and teen suicide.  Now imagine how these same topics were candidly portrayed in an 1891 German book Spring Awakening written by Frank Wedekind.  It didn’t go over so well then as it was banned in that country for some time.
Photo: Stan Barough
Undaunted, the rock musical called Spring Awakening based on that controversial work was crafted by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sate.  The production opened on Broadway in 2006 and captured eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor, and four Drama Desk awards plus a Grammy. The female lead was played by Glee’s Lea Michelle prior to her move to TV.

After a successful run on Broadway and London and touring productions in the U.S. and Canada, Spring Awakening arrived at the Olney Theatre Center, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  Director Steve Cosson, aided by an attractive talented cast and an imaginative creative team, blended the often dark and heavy storyline that was set in late 19th century Germany with modern rock music, lighting and staging to present a sparkling and moving production.
It is a great challenge to mesh 19th century European mores with contemporary optics and sound.  That dichotomy is left to the audience to work out.  In its totality, despite that challenge, the production succeeds.

Using a strong score under the direction of Christopher Youstra with great work from the orchestra, the storyline delicately and ably weaves a series of subplots into a dramatic tapestry involving adolescents discovering their feelings about sexuality and intimacy.  Parents of these kids were loathe to have frank “birds and bees” conversations, so the youngsters had to learn about such matters on their own in various ways while dealing with the effects of puberty.
Wendla, played tenderly by Alyse Alan Louis, never received sexual guidance from her mother and paid the ultimate price.  She caught up with a friend from her early childhood years, Melchior, a handsome, intelligent, and rebellious fellow (performed splendidly by Matthew Kacergis) who, through book learning, was aware of the mechanics of sex and enjoyed his intimacy with a na├»ve Wendla.  Sadly, this encounter ultimately had tragic consequences as two lives were lost.
Matthew Kacergis and Alyse Alan Louis  Photo: Stan Barough

Then there is Moritz, played solidly by Parker Drown.  He, too, had his issues involving his sexual feelings but was even more victimized by evil, unscrupulous schoolteachers (played deliciously by Ethan Watermeier and Liz Mamana, who also perform other adult roles) and his unsympathetic father.

Ernst (David Landstrom) and Hanschen (Austin Vandyke Colby) find love with each other.  Happily, this gay couple is among the few who did not experience sadness, frustration or tragedy and provided some of the lighter moments in the production.
Other characters include Ilse (Maggie Donnelly) who runs away from home to escape abuse; Martha (Marylee Adams) who was abused by her father; Georg (Chris Rudy) who fantasizes about his voluptuous piano teacher; and Otto (Christopher Mueller) who dreams about his mother.  You get the picture.

There were some comedic moments, such as a masturbation, uh, autoeroticism scene, with the good-looking Colby as Hanschen constantly being interrupted by his father.  And the exchange later on between him and Ernst (Landstrom) is quite enjoyable.
The music is electric and was performed wonderfully by the entire cast.  Alyse Alan Louis’ rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” is gorgeous as she exudes her frustration of her mother’s reticence about discussing sex.  She also shines with Matthew Kacergis as Melchior in “The Word of Your Body” (a song that is reprised two more times with other characters) and “Whispering”.  Her acting is spot on as her character draws significant empathy from the audience

Kacergis, who recently played in Olney’s well-received Cinderella, has charismatic leading man looks and a stellar singing voice.  His acting skills are right for the role, demonstrating a take-charge and defiant persona inherent to Melchior.  Kacergis’ numbers are all performed well but his touching performance of “Left Behind” is truly magnificent as it showcases his full tenor range.
Parker Drown effectively plays the complex and emotional character Moritz.  It would be tempting to overact in such a role but thankfully he does not cross that line.  Drown, a Helen Hayes Award winner, morphs effectively from the 19th century Moritz character to a modern rock performer in “And Then There Was None”.  He also excels in “Don’t Do Sadness”.

Although mostly appearing in the ensemble, Christopher Mueller’s singing talent stands out.  A great resonating voice, Mueller delivers as Otto in the reprise of “The Word of Your Body”.  The company performs the outstanding numbers “The Bitch of Living” and “Touch Me” extremely well.
Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is particularly exceptional in “Totally F*cked” with the ensemble moving around the stage with high energy and cohesion and using chairs as props. 

Also needing to take a bow is the lighting designer Robert Wierzel.  Employing three rows of LED lights forming a boxy arch around the sides and top of the stage and coordinating lights in the rear to illuminate a forest, Wierzel effectively mixes colorful combinations to coincide with the mood of a particular song or the dramatic dialogue. 
And credit costume designer Sarah Beers for nicely outfitting the girls in period plaid skirts and simple white blouses and the boys in their gray jackets, black vests, white shirts, striped ties, knee-length shorts and high socks. 

Though it’s a sad story for the most part, Spring Awakening is riveting and entertains with especially good musical numbers and fine acting by the cast, well deserving of the standing ovation it received the night this performance was reviewed.

Running Time: Two hours with an intermission.
Spring Awakening plays through March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or visiting it online.  

1 comment:

Rick said...

Great review Steve as always. It makes me want to see it.