Sunday, July 16, 2017

Solid ‘Spring Awakening’ at the Spotlighters

Sean Dynan as Mechior and Jim Baxter as Moritz
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
If you think today’s society is challenged to deal with such thorny issues as abortion, homelessness, child abuse, rape, unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality, and teen suicide, consider 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.  #hocoarts

Undaunted, the rock musical Spring Awakening is based on that controversial work and was crafted by Grammy Award-winning songwriter Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sater.  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.

Those not familiar with the musical Spring Awakening may assume that the show, just by going by its title, is an uplifting, joyous spectacle. Instead, it’s an often dark portrayal of how teenagers struggle to be liberated especially when it comes to sexual fantasies and behavior while the adults in their lives cling to conservative and religious mores in an effort to thwart their kids’ attempts at freedom.  The tension between the two sides is palpable forming the underlying backdrop to the story of Spring Awakening.

The Audrey Herman Spotlighters in its 55th season has taken on the challenge of mounting this musical on its cozy in-the-round stage.  Why not?  It has done so effectively in the past with such iconic musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly, Rocky Horror Show and Mame through creative direction and efficient use of space.  Talented casts helped, too.

Dynan and Allison Comotto as Wendla
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
With Spring Awakening, the production, under the direction of Jillian Locklear Bauersfield, who has helmed some of those mentioned musicals, is solid.  

While the Spotlighters’ limited space and stage contours do not afford an opportunity to present a splashy production, the benefit of its intimacy with the audience is clear.  This is especially true when the raw emotions of the characters are conveyed through song and dialogue.  The audience gets the sense it is right in the middle of the action and can feel those vibes.  
Using the strong score under the excellent direction of Michael Tan and his four-piece orchestra, the story line 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 lovely Allison Comotto, 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 Sean Dynan) who, through book learning, was aware of the mechanics of sex and enjoyed his intimacy with a naïve Wendla.  Sadly, this encounter ultimately had tragic consequences as two lives were lost.

Then there is Moritz, played powerfully by Jim Baxter.  He, too, had his issues involving his sexual feelings but was even more victimized by evil, unscrupulous schoolteachers (played deliciously by Marc Korol-Evans and real life wife Tony Korol-Evans) and his unsympathetic father.  The Korol-Evanses adroitly play the other adult roles in the show demonstrating strong acting skills.

Ernst (Chris Weaver) and Hanschen (Aaron Hancock) find love with each other.  Happily, this gay couple is among the few who did not experience sadness, frustration or tragedy and provide some of the lighter moments in the production. One of those is a masturbation scene with Hanschen constantly being interrupted by his father. 

Other characters include Ilse (Ellen Manuel) who runs away from home to escape abuse; Martha (Alyssa Bell) who was abused by her father; Georg (John Endres) and Otto (Brendan Hale) who have fantasies of their own.
Aaron Hancock as Hanschen and Chris Weaver as Ernst
Photo: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography
The music is electric and performed ably by the entire cast. And despite the tight stage, the choreography by Amie Morrow Bell is creative and precise especially in such numbers as “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and the big production piece and a show highlight, “Totally Fucked” with the ensemble moving around the stage with high energy and cohesion .

Some of the vocals are noteworthy as well. Mr. Dynan, playing Melchior, excels with his tenor voice with an infusion of falsetto in “All That’s Known,” “Left Behind” and duets with Ms. Comotto in “The Word of Your Body” and “Whispering.”

Ellen Manuel as Ilse shines in “Blue Wind” and Jim Baxter as Moritz singing the intense number “Don’t Do Sadness.”  Also, Brendan Hale as Otto demonstrates a sweet tenor voice in the reprise of “The Word of Your Body” with John Endres as Georg.

Amy Rawe Weimer’s costume design and Laurie Brandon’s lighting enhance the quality of the production.

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 under the capable direction of Ms. Bauersfield. It is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains sexual situations and profanity and is not recommended for children.

Spring Awakening runs through July 30 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 752-1225, or visit spotlighters.org.

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