BWW Reviews: Talented Young Cast Performs SPRING AWAKENING at Ephrata's EPAC
When Frank Wedekind wrote "Spring's Awakening" in 1891, he wasn't expecting it not to be produced until 1906 and to cause a scandal when it was performed, for it to be accused of being pornographic in New York, or banned in Boston and London. (He did a bit better with his "Lulu" plays that form the basis of Alban Berg's opera.) When Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik adapted it as a rock musical a century later as multiple-Tony-winner SPRING AWAKENING, one wonders if they realized that reaction in some circles still wouldn't be much different. You'd think that by now, people would have realized that in every century, in every country, adolescents will have hot and cold running hormones and will discover sex whether adults tell them about it or not.
At Ephrata Performing Arts Center, artistic director Edward Fernandez has decided to bring the story of Victorian-era German adolescents to Pennsylvania Dutch country, an area that in some corners seems not necessarily much more enlightened than provincial Germany at the time of Wedekind's writing.
EPAC's production brings with it two real achievements – a great setting, manifested through particularly creative use of lights (kudos to set designer Mike Rhoads and lighting designer Jeff Cusano) and a particularly fine orchestra, directed by J.P. Meyer, that particularly stood out on two of the numbers. For community theatre this orchestra is exceptional, and it would be a fine one for a professional production of the same show.
This production also brings with it a lead cast of Josh Kirwin (Melchior Gabor), Kate-Lynn Scheib (Wendla Bergmann) and Vince Fazzolari (Moritz Stiefel) who are not only stage veterans already but who have previous experience with the play. Kirwin, particularly, is impressive, and he owns the stage from his first moment speaking. He's also a fine singer, no surprise as he's also a back-up vocalist in a local band; the stage experience shows. Fazzolari is a fine performer as well, although all the younger male performers are somewhat overshadowed by Kirwin; he particularly shines, finally, in the second act when he cuts loose on "Don't Do Sadness". Scheib clearly knows the show well and makes a lovely Wendla, a girl doomed by the innocence her mother, Frau Bergmann, is anxious not to disturb.
Supporting cast are also well-chosen, and are a particularly talented lot for a large group of younger performers. Fernandez was anxious that his cast really be made of younger performers, as he finds the tendency to engage older performers to play adolescent parts on stage, especially in a show such as this, to produce unconvincing results. In that, he has succeeded admirably, especially with Amy Ward, singing Ilse, a newcomer to EPAC, and with high school senior Madison Buck, an young EPAC veteran. Both have astonishing voices, and Ward has astonishing stage presence for a fairly new performer.
Buck's portrayal of the abused Martha is convincing, and her performance of "The Dark I Know Well", is remarkable. Ward simply inhabits the role of Ilse, an 1890's flower child, floating in and out of the other characters' lives, an underaged Bohemian artists' model and freethinker. The innocence she manages to convey in the part makes the story she recounts of her life particularly chilling – she is the adolescent caught in a dangerous place who finds the possibilities of injury and death more exhilarating than cautionary, who has not yet learned her lesson from drinking herself into a stupor and sleeping all night in the snow, but who considers it an adventure. She is the counterbalance to Martha, who knows she is trapped in a hell from which she sees no immediate way out. Her "The Song of Purple Summer," the closing number, truly makes sense for the show.
Susan Barber and Larry Gessler play the adult woman and adult man, whose roles change with the immediate needs of the scenes. Barber, a long-time EPAC performer, plays a convincing and sympathetic Mrs. Gabor, Melchior's deeply caring mother, but admits that her favorite role in the show is that of the disciplinarian schoolmistress, with a cane in hand and an urge to fail students in her mind. Gessler, also an experienced area actor, makes a terrifying Latin master and a frightening Mr. Gabor, easily prepared to dispose of his son to a reformatory, but prefers the role of Hanschen's father, perhaps the only adult male in the show with no misplaced motivations.
Moments of AWAKENING do hearken to other shows. Frau Bergmann, explaining reproduction to Wendla, seems strangely like CARRIE'S mother, and the long-term results of her misinformation are equally unfortunate. The horrendous Latin master reminds one of Ubu in UBU ROI (another banned play of the 1890's), when one realizes that this evil and dominating character was written based on playwright Alfred Jarry's own school teacher, far more than he would remind anyone of Mr. Chips, whose disciplinarian mode was outweighed by his administration of tea and biscuits to his boys who needed an ear. (In AWAKENING, the only adult willing to give any of the children an ear is Frau Gabor, who not only worries for her son but attempts to help Moritz find his way out of a self-destructive path created by his own low self-worth.) Other moments bring similar recollections, but this is still a story unto itself.
It is an odd quirk of the show – it's in Wedekind's original writing, and one can't help noticing it – that the only romantic pairing of the show that escapes misery is Hanschen and Ernst, the two gay teens who find each other. Perhaps the secret lies in Hanschen's observation that the way to get through life is not to challenge all of its norms openly. Melchior, an exceptionally apt student, challenges every one of them on every front, a path that leads to eventual disaster for himself and Wendla. Hanschen is no less a thinker than Melchior, it appears, but he is one who values safety over the open revelation of truths when one is powerless.
The primary flaws in this show are some issues of sound, particularly in the first part of the first act, which cause lyrics to be muddied during the singing; there's almost an echo-chamber effect that dampens some of the audibility at some times. Other than that, if you know German well, you'll realize quickly that the cast doesn't. Perhaps slightly more dialect coaching might help. If you're not overly concerned about such things, come to see some remarkable young local acting talent and to see if Wedekind and Sater may know a thing or two about teenage angst that you've overlooked. Anyone who's really scandalized by this show simply doesn't understand adolescence.
At EPAC through November 10; for tickets, call 717-733-7966 or visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.com.
Photo credit: EPAC