BWW Reviews: Area Stage's SPRING AWAKENING Touches with Raw Originality
Flying chairs, raging emotions, and the coursing harmonies abound within Area Stage Company's intimate space as Spring Awakening returns to the stage. Now, manned by director Darius J. Manuel, the production is embedded with a tsunami of raw energy, emotion, and the inventive (though rare) seamless blend between director's views and his cast's unbridled talent. Although Spring Awakening is a part of Area Stage Company's conservatory, which serves to facilitate the growth of young artists (one cast member is only fourteen years of age), the production plants itself firmly and confidently; Manuel's Spring Awakening is one of the bravest productions of the rock musical, making tiny alterations with respect to both prior Broadway casts, pushing bravely to becoming one of the most impressive conservatory shows on the market.
Spring Awakening is Duncan Sheik's 2006 adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1896 German play, revived for a second Broadway production in 2015 using primarily deaf actors. At the heart of the show (beneath the well-known sexual nature) lie the troubles of youth when deprived of information from the world around them. The desperation for connection and communication was heightened in the 2015 production, shifting the show's protagonists entirely. Director Darius J. Manuel has taken the best elements from each show and blended them into a gripping story he rewrites to showcases the anguish and longing.
At the heart of Manuel's Spring Awakening is a young rising star, the powerful Isabella Lopez. Lopez's smoldering mezzo voice, somewhere between Lea Michelle and the belting Lena Hall, both begins and ends the show with soaring sway. Lopez, as Wendla Bergmann, displays elements of innocence while still holding the most independent agency in the show. For once, Wendla does not break under pressure- Manuel and Lopez have given life, strength, drive to the character that comes through only in her complete sincerity towards the world. For a character that endures some of the show's most gruesome damnings, Lopez has turned Wendla from damsel to heroine, and master of her own destiny. Lopez's Wendla is a show in and of itself.
Both male leads, the characters Melchior Gabor and Moritz Stiefel, are held in balance by the production's excellent ensemble; both Jose Vazquez and Ryan Bauta, respectively, wage their characters' internal wars with gusto. Vazquez's Melchior is given the plot focus of Jonathan Groff's iteration, while he steps up to make his young radical a different character from the ground up. His Gabor is bristling, on the verge of something great- this potential drives him. Bauta's Moritz, on the other hand, is a tragedy made beautiful; the disheveled youth burns his candle at both ends until the explosive 'Don't Do Sadness' brings the shows to new levels.
A majority of a typical Spring Awakening ensemble is often lost behind the power of the leading trio, but Manuel's cast powers back. There are scores of deep, emotional performances; the numerous roles and portrayals of June Romero are key, which each adult giving stark contrast and depth. The comedy rises in small spurts in nuances from Bobby Morales' Otto or O'Ryan Montgomery's vulnerability in the first act. Each player has a role in the constantly moving show, which rarely allows them to even leave the stage.
Particular note is to be made of some of the more prevalent members- the remarkable Nayomi Braaf leads 'The Dark I Know Well' as a chilling dirge, with her final harmonies bouncing with Daniela Vazquez's notes- the effect is immediate, memorable. The visual dynamic they create is fresh, original for a darker rendition of a staple number. There's also Tedrick Wilson, whose voice and dance talents are an unbelievable addition to the show- his scenes are few, but each leaves an impact, especially his affair with Fraulein Großebüstenhalter. And, no coverage of the production can be complete without distinguishing Alberto Castro's impeccable Hanschen. His tenor blesses large numbers, in places the character is not normally seen; he also provides one of the most interesting characters in the ensemble through his predatory, arrogant seduction. The ensemble rotation continually appeases throughout the night, an endless parade of gripping vignettes with a touch of magic.
What makes Manuel's cast so ferocious is their ability to be utterly passionate to a boil. Numbers like 'Touch Me' thrill and chill as the cast explodes, hands tearing through clothes and frustrations mounting in soulful dirges and riffs. The youth of the cast works to their favor: most don't have to imagine the frustrations of youth. Instead, they deliver a brutal depiction of it at its most beautiful, or haunting. This is one of the sexier Spring Awakenings, but also one of the more emotional- the balance of drama, love, passion, rage, and horror, are all the tracks for Manuel's roller-coaster that twists loops in heart strings.
Manuel's ideas work well, dodging in and out of the borrowed elements he's used, and presenting his own fresh takes on Sheik's show. Placement of characters around and outside of the action, as the set pieces, or as outcasts, embroils the action. There is an Othello-like use of a white sheet across the show's three dramatic peaks, with tragic blood splatters, creating the need to be out with the damned spot he's thought up. There is wonder in his culminating second act that must be seen to be believed, especially by the few who have seen both major productions that predate his.
The technical workings don't only support the magic happening on the stage, but enrich and frame it- Giancarlo Rodaz's beautiful, cathedral-esque set allows the endless motion to feel grounded in a serene, though ominous, presence. His lighting takes inspiration equal parts from theatrical greats and rock concerts- specials and subtleties abound in the more gruesome scenes, but 'Totally Fucked' bursts forth in a light show that'd make Gene Simmons grin. Rodaz's design is smart, and comes in levels from scene to scene, allowing heart racing visuals to transition back to Manuel's pointed drama seamlessly.
Seeing a show of such caliber at a conservatory, led by students of the craft on all levels, is incredibly rare. The well-oiled machine Manuel has created in his Spring Awakening is a small miracle in the intimate space, showcasing the truly remarkable cast and an outstanding design. Walk into the purple summer with Area Stage Company while you can- the conservatory won't be showing this experience for much longer.
Spring Awakening plays at the Area Stage Company from June 2nd-11th. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.