7/27/2019 SPRING AWAKENING OnStage Atlanta
(Sloth/Self-Plagiarism Alert: Much of this is rewritten from my review of Actor’s Express’s 2011 production. No excuses, but my “background” comments remain stubbornly valid.)
(Bias Alert: I’ve collaborated with Liane LeMaster and John Jenkins more than once and think the world of their talents and “body of work;” so I tend to view anything they do through approval-tinted glasses.)
When I first saw Spring Awakening at Actor’s Express way back in 2011 (has it really been that long?), I was fully expecting to dislike it. After all, I’d found the cast recording less than compelling, the original 1896 Frank Wedekind play a bit of a frustrating slog of a read, and the combination of modern rock music and period characters a disharmonious discontinuity. But it seems I found the Actor’s Express’ production of this 2007 Tony winner completely captivating and profoundly moving, and, despite having only sporadic contact with its score and story in the intervening years, I found OnStage Atlanta’s production equally compelling, equally moving, and exceptionally well-performed.
So, we’re in late 19th-century Germany. Students at an all-boys Academy and the girls they grew up with are entering adolescence, that confusing time of life when puberty raises its ugly head (so to speak) and hormones trump maturity. The older generation is happily stuck in a hidebound rut of authority and Victorian contempt for anything that smacks of the sensual. So, the kids are between a
rock and a hard place (so to speak) – their bodies are sending them urgent demands that MUST BE MET NOW !!!!, but their parents and teachers categorically refuse to explain these demands. So, we’re left with dreams that aren’t explained, desires with sudden and hidden consequences, harsh judgments and cold lovelessness. In other words, the young characters are “Totally F$%^ked” (in the words of one of the show’s best numbers) with tragic results.
Melchior (Jacob Valleroy) is the smart kid, the leader, the one to whom everyone goes to for advice, the “Great Hope” of his school and his family. Wendla (Emily WInchell) is an innocent waif whose mother refuses to tell how she becomes an aunt. Melchior and Wendla “discover” each other (though they have known each other their entire lives). Moritz (Shane Murphy) is a slower student, awkward and shy, who doesn’t understand these “sticky dreams” that keep him awake at night and narcoleptic in class. His father cares less about failure than how the neighbors will judge that failure. Martha (Marquelle Young) is abused by her father, Ilse (Gabriella Anderson) has been ousted by her family, Ernst (John Jenkins) has a crush on Hanschen (Austin Basham), who is only too happy to act upon that knowledge. The other kids (played by Ella Chamis, Suzanne Stroup, Nolan Martin, and James Thomas) all have their distinctly characteristic aspect of adolescence to explore, all contribute threads to the tapestry being constructed by the play.
These teenage characters run the full spectrum from total innocence to active seducer, from languescent torpor (“I just want to feel something!”) to spastic foot-stomping passion (“I want to feel something NOW!”). From the vantage point of my golden years, I found it difficult to watch them wander into the traps I fell into myself, become overwhelmed by “the little things,” and experiment (sometimes successfully) with total self-destruction. I shuddered at Hanschen’s calculated seduction of the innocent Ernst, and at Melchior’s more sincere seduction of Wendla. I heard my own teachers’ voices in the thoughtless pontifications of the “adults”, (all men played by Darrell Wofford, all women by Liane LeMaster, all characters intentionally dressed alike and interchangeable).
The kids seem to bridge the past and the present, the adults mire themselves in the past – it is this dynamic that makes the seeming culture clash gel and compel.
As before, the modern elements work. The kids are all costumed in semi-period clothes that contained modern touches (designed by Nancy Quarles Hilley) and had distinctly modern hair and vocal styles. The set (a beautiful construct by director Charlie Miller) is all dark corners and sylvan images, dominated by an imposing tree whose roots seem to spread through the cast like a harbinger of oaken doom. Not the surrealist approach used at Actor’s Express, but profoundly effective in its own way and just as evocative of mood and emotion rather than period.
Even the songs take on a new veneer when backed by the passion of these performers. Okay, I still don’t love the score, but the songs effectively evoke the moments of the play that give them life. The opening “Mama Who Bore Me” is a plaintive “What is happening to me?” cry from Wendla, the “angry” songs (“The Bitch of Living,” “The Dark I Know Well,” “Totally F$%^ked”) have drive and passion, displaying a primal frustration that was missed by this casual listener of the original cast. And the final “Song of Purple Summer” remains a beautiful hymn to growing, to loss, and to the memory of those who never make it through this “spring.”
What really sells this play for me are how all these contradictory elements seem united, how they create their own world that is perfectly acceptable and perfectly analogous to our own. The ensemble work of the cast is astounding (kudos to Music Director Paul Tate, Director Charlie Miller, and Choreographer Janie Young for making their various contributions seamless and whole), and the design work (set and sound by director Miller, costumes by Nancy Quarles Hilley, lights by Harley Gould) creates a world that I was only too happy to visit. And all is done with nary a microphone in sight, lyrics voiced clearly without being overwhelmed by the live band.
So, Spring Awakening is a tremendously moving tapestry of adolescence, of the angst and anticipation that create that long and languid span between childhood and adulthood (what I describe as “adolanguescence,” because it’s such a neat-sounding word), where we fight the battles of fast-change maturity with the tools of a child (when our parents and teachers even choose to give us those tools). It is ultimately an emotionally satisfying excursion into the slings and arrows, the fatalities and survivals, the rants and whines of teenagers of every generation.
And it’s a reminder that it’s sometimes short-sighted to pre-judge a show by its original cast recording.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #osaSpringAwakening)