BWW Reviews: Roxy Regional Theatre's SPRING AWAKENING Couldn't Be More Timely For Tennessee Audiences

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It's rather ironic that this week-a week in which members of the Tennessee State Senate considered a bill that would outlaw such "gateway sexual activities" as hand-holding and kissing among the state's schoolchildren-that Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre would unveil its rock-solid production of Spring Awakening, the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical about sexual repression and the perils of denying the possibilities of carnal knowledge and an accompanying sense of self-awareness among teenagers in Germany in the late 19th century.

It might be a good idea, even, for someone to organize a field trip for those bumbling, stumbling state senators who can find nothing better to do (like, for example, taking steps to create new jobs or to alleviate poverty in our fair state, rather than making us a laughingstock to the rest of the union) to a performance of the Tony Award-winning musical, which should serve as a cautionary tale of what might happen if natural urges are suppressed and the quest for knowledge shut down and/or ignored.

Barring that unforeseen happenstance, it might be a good idea for theater audiences to head to the Roxy for their own viewing of the sometimes controversial musical based on the once-banned play by Frank Wedekind. Wedekind's play, once considerEd White hot in its intensely plotted story of youthful suppression and subsequent rebellion engendered by an appalling lack of open dialogue (not to mention the play's frank treatment of such topics as suicide, rape, homosexuality, child abuse and abortion) provides an interesting subtext to the repressive nature of our current societal intercourse, underscoring the musical's relevance and still-potent message.

And while Spring Awakening thrills and titillates with its sexual themes and a ferociously candid representation of the budding teen sensuality of its characters, it also presents an indictment of German academic trends of the late 19th century, a time when some scholars actively sought to expel students they deemed unfit or unable to learn expeditiously. In short, if schoolmasters decided a student lacked the mental faculties to memorize and parrot Greek or Latin passages by heart, they were thrown out rather unceremoniously to pursue menial jobs, denied entre to society's upper classes.

The script's message about the dangers of denying information to young people, who naturally question all that exists about them, is shockingly contemporary- thanks to the current American political climate that pervades our society and a musical score by Duncan Sheik that marries folk, alternative rock and showtunes into a theatrical three-way that makes the whole sordid story more palatable. In that sense, Spring Awakening is made more accessible to all audiences (credit Steven Sater's book and lyrics for bringing Wedekind's original work into the 21st century with obvious sensitivity), regardless of age or experience, and further underscores the notion that the more things change the more they stay the same, begging the question: Haven't we learned anything over the past few centuries?

Clearly, that's the query posited by new production at the Roxy, which is directed with a stylish flair by Tom Thayer, the company's managing director. Spring Awakening isn't your grandmother's musical theater to be certain (I can't imagine Rodgers and Hammerstein undertaking such a project, to be sure), but it's very likely the old girl could find much to admire in the quickly paced and effectively staged two hours of theater that inspires and informs.

With a youthful, dewy-eyed cast-who are joined onstage by Roxy veterans John McDonald and Leslie Greene (how delightful is it to see the two of them onstage, assaying all the adult roles in the script, as the latest in their shared collaborations)-performing their roles with admirable focus and thorough commitment, it's as if new blood has been pumped into the Sheik/Sater musical, ensuring its continued popularity among theater audiences in general, and younger theater-goers in particular. It is the ensemble's relative youth and their unabashed enthusiasm for the material that infuses the musical with the energy needed to bring it to life vividly and believably on the stage.




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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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