BWW Reviews: Over the Moon's SPRING AWAKENING Will Still Resonate Despite Lack of Depth
When Frank Wedekind wrote SPRING AWAKENING in the late 1800's, he could hardly have imagined that a little over a century later his play would be transformed into a Tony Award-winning rock musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. It makes sense though because just as Wedekind pushed the boundaries of polite society by writing about topics no one else dared to, so Sheik and Sater challenged what contemporary audiences had come to expect from musical theatre. Their use of handheld mics intentionally broke from reality and the normal storytelling function of musical theatre songs to provide a device for the characters to express their confusion and angst in a more contemporary rock concert fashion. The result was a thrilling fusion of modalities that brought a new generation to the theatre.
Set in the late nineteenth century, SPRING AWAKENING is the story of a group of young students in the midst of their sexual awakening who are kept ignorant about life by their parents and teachers with tragic consequences. It shines a light on taboo subjects of the time like rape, masturbation, incest, abortion, and suicide, and reminds us that they are just as relevant today.
The production that opened last week at the Egyptian Arena Stage in Hollywood retains much of the look and feel of its Broadway predecessor under director Kate Sullivan and choreographer Laura Harrison's careful staging. A capable cast reproduces with polish and precision the iconic pictures and musical numbers that those familiar with SPRING AWAKENING have come to expect, yet it is that very precision that makes the production feel uncharacteristically contained and cautious.
The Glee Project's Lindsay Pearce and newcomer Matt Vairo give honest performances as Wendla and Melchior but they speak so quietly that it's difficult to hear their dialogue. When they sing, which should be the moments they abandon the confines of their lives and let loose, it is with the smallest sound possible, even though they are on mics. Overall, there is a lot of pianissimo singing in this production that diffuses the impact of the story and it wasn't until "I Believe" late in the show that the ensemble's harmonies finally came together. Complicating the sound on opening night were strings that had difficulty tuning as well.
A terrific Tiffany Grey (Martha) gives the performance of the night when she discloses her father's abuse in her intensely powerful "The Dark I Know Well" and Molly McCook is luminous as the wayward free spirit, Ilse. Their resonant voices cut through the quiet and we ache for them to find a way out of their troubled circumstances. Other ensemble members have moments of substance but for the most part seem only able to scratch the surface of their characters frustrations, waiting until Act Two's explosive "Totally Fucked" to really make an impact.
David Carey Foster and Kelly Lester play all the adult characters in the show and do so beautifully. Foster is a commanding presence who expresses the intentions of his characters' brief appearances with ease, reinforcing the fact that it isn't how much stage time a character has but the depth of understanding and the way it is communicated that creates a strong statement. In addition to her more strait-laced characters, Lester also gets a nice comedic turn as Georg's piano teacher.
Stephen Gifford's set design surrounds the action with a back wall full of celestial constellations and a blackboard suspended center stage that contains the show's song titles pieced together like abstract mathematical equations. It cleverly reinforces the dichotomy of expansion and restriction the students experience. Jessica Lively's impeccable costumes also define the period much like those seen on Broadway.
Though not a perfect production, Over the Moon's SPRING AWAKENING still delivers a well-written story with an abundance of energy that is sure to resonate with youthful audiences despite its lack of depth.