Spring Awakening makes one thing abundantly clear: it sucks to be young—especially if you live in puritanical 19th century Germany, and are on the teeter-totter of puberty. The current production at Off the Wall Theatre eschews the musical’s usual rock-concert theatrics: no stabbing spotlights, no microphones, and the music is largely, if not completely, acoustic. Under the skillful direction of Dale Gutzman, the result is like a bonsai tree: not flashy, but precise, present, and ravishing.
There is quite possibly nobody (at least not in this town) who knows more about staging musical theater than Gutzman, and he’s pared the show’s hazy, symbolist-inflected romanticism to such clarity that even though the form is entirely artificial, every moment makes emotional sense, with just enough space for our responses to breathe and shift like the movements of an inner emotional symphony. Gutzman is enormously assisted by music director Anne Van Deusen, who embraces the low-tech approach, conducting her pocket orchestra (including acoustic guitar played beautifully by Jay Kummer) with inventiveness and great sensitivity: you become aware of a simple musical theme that runs through the entire show, which Van Duesen makes into a strength rather than a weakness of the score. She leads her talented young singers just as capably, giving each one his or her Glee-worthy belting moment, and buffing their group harmonies to ring like cathedral chimes. Simply put: they sound fantastic.
Then there’s that cast: mostly student performers, they bring tremendous commitment to their roles; each character is distinct and personal. Both separately and in ensemble, they access an emotional reservoir so purely and intensely, it seems less like a performance than a rite of passage. Certainly it was hot enough in the tiny theater to serve as an ad hoc sweat lodge, driving the entire audience out into the street for intermission—but we all came back. Actually, given that the play covers most of the taboos separating the adult world from childhood—child abuse, unwanted pregnancy, masturbation, homosexuality, depression, and suicide, to name but a few—it actually works as a rite of passage.
Gutzman deserves credit for casting outside the comfort zone of his gang of usual suspects to find new young performers. In the role of Wendla, a girl whose mother is pathologically incapable of telling her the facts of life (with tragic results), Alexandra Bonesho brings a career’s worth of experience playing the boundary between innocence and knowledge. It’s a smart, honest performance that hits all the right notes. Claudio Parrone Jr. as Melchior, the rebel intellectual, can himself hardly be a teenager, but he passes amazingly well for one: eyes wide with horrified comprehension, half-hidden beneath an unruly haircut. As Moritz, a student driven mad by erotic thoughts that his education has given him “no way to handle,” Patrick McCann creates a memorable character, playing it cooler than we expect (even if his singing is a bit pitchy). Here, Melchior is the nervous, neurotic one, and far from sympathetic. The sex scene is unequivocally a rape: Wendla doesn’t even really know what’s going on. Afterwards, Melchior is so self-absorbed he can actually sing about the amazing new person he’s become, now that he’s finally “done it.” It’s a clear-eyed, nuanced look at the hot topic of date rape: the responsibility includes, but isn’t restricted to, the immediate parties in various degrees, and the consequences are terrible for everyone.
Playing all the adults in the story, Jocelyn Ridgely and Dale Gutzman play a spectrum of culpability, from well-meaning but ignorant to willfully mean-spirited. But they aren’t monsters (well, except for one)—just fallible human beings. We see them as the kids do: hapless and often ridiculous. Who would ever think to put them in charge? Gutzman makes it clear who is most to blame, towering over center stage in his priest’s cassock as he delivers a sanctimonious, clueless sermon. In the show’s most harrowing moment, Calynn Klohn, as a girl who is regularly abused by her father, shows us a real person, not a generic victim; on the opposite end of the scale, Brittni Hesse brings earthy confidence to the role of a young woman who has escaped the town’s stifling culture for the dubious freedom of an artist’s commune.
Gutzman keeps the ensemble moving; players are constantly on and off, adding their voices to the main characters’ songs, blurring the distinction between leads and chorus. Everyone gets to shine, and we get the sense that one character’s story is everyone’s story. This tragedy could, and does, happen anywhere that fear, insecurity, and narrow-minded religion hold power.
In Wedekind’s original play, Moritz’s ghost visits Melchior in a graveyard, and is about to convince him to join him in death when a mysterious stranger arrives and promises to help Melchior find a better way of life. Wisely, the musical replaces this episode with a kind of “it gets better” anthem to assure the kids in the audience that they will indeed have sex someday: lots of it, and good, too (that’s the gist of it, anyway). Gutzman stages this number as a simple epilog, giving the ensemble a final opportunity to make us cry with their strong, gorgeous voices and fierce charisma.
As the program note says of this gifted group of singer/dancer/musician/actors: “Just watch them.”
Off the Wall Theatre presents
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
plays July 29-31, August 1 and 2
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