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.

Although energy sometimes flagged on opening night (no doubt due to the rigors of a frenzied rehearsal process and the show's playing in repertory with Schoolhouse Rock Live!), the overall results are engaging enough to encourage repeated viewings of the musical. In fact, the production-thanks to Thayer's clear-headed, yet completely imaginative, approach and the palpable sense of joie de vivre among the cast members-may be one of the most satisfying productions we've seen in Clarksville over lo these many years we've been making the trip there for theater. It should be noted, as well, that Spring Awakening fits perfectly into the Roxy canon: You absolutely must give credit to Thayer and McDonald for their stalwart and steadfast devotion to presenting controversial, provocative theater for their loyal audiences, compelling them to think and to grow.

Thayer's staging of the musical is obviously inspired by its original off-Broadway and Broadway productions, but he very creatively adds freshness to the proceedings that result in a production that is somehow more accessible to audiences, while taking into account the obviously intimate environs of the venue. The scene that concludes Act One, in which Melchior Gabor and Wendla Bergmann (played with a sweet intensity that fairly undulates with adolescent sexuality by Matt DuMont and Hannah Church) have sex onstage, there is no nudity. However, the staging is just as dramatic and emotionally moving in its way, as the pair of young lovers is surrounded by their friends who unflinchingly watch their hurried lovemaking in a hayloft.

Thayer directs his ensemble with a studiEd Grace that is made more powerful by outbursts of realism and genuine emotion amid the stylized, Steampunk-inspired physical trappings of the production.

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Dumont, handsome and self-assured, plays Melchior with the easy swagger of a teen heartthrob while imbuing his character with the depth and complexity that comes from a thoroughly thought-out and well-conceived performance. He is ably paired with Church, who plays Wendla with an innocence and a petulance that is only believable when it comes from the heart. Dumont and Church perform "The World of Your Body" with a simmering sexual heat that stokes the fire of their later scenes, making them all the more poignant and genuinely heartrending as their story unfolds.

Gregory Pember, as Moritz Stiefel, Melchior's schoolmate who fears he is losing his mind after one wet dream too many, gives a startlingly fresh performance in the role, casting his wild-eyed gaze around the theater while effectively showing us the character's inner turmoil. He walks a very fine line, to be certain, in demonstrating the various demons that possess Moritz's heart, yet he somehow manages to keep him grounded, thus making certain that his feelings and emotions seem real and deep-seated. His performance of "Don't Do Sadness" in Act Two-which is nothing short of gripping-gives us a glimpse into Moritz's soul, offering us greater insight into his psyche, thereby making the dramatic arc experienced by the character all the more challenging.

Cast as Ilse, the girl sexually abused by her father and seemingly every adult man with whom she comes into contact, Kendall Anne Thompson gives a searing performance that is completely shattering. With her normally blonde hair darkened for the role, Thompson's portrayal is delivered with conviction and focus, every emotion experienced by Ilse written so evocatively, etched so defiantly across her lovely face. Never before have I seen Thompson in a more confident performance; amid a cast filled with impressive performances, hers could well be worth the price of a ticket. Her performance of "The Song of Purple Summer," which closes the show with the hope of redemption and validation, is heart-stoppingly genuine, and her duet with Pember on "Don't Do Sadness" and "Blue Wind" is easily one of the highlights of the show's musical program.

"The Bitch of Living," perhaps the score's most often-recalled song, is given its due by the young men in the cast-all of whom are dreamy in the "I'm going to be on To Catch A Predator and Chris Hansen is going to offer me some sweet tea" kind of way-although on opening night, the performance seemed a tad too tentative. Certainly, "Totally Fucked" more than made up for it (in fact, Act Two seemed more energized, more pumped up and, thus, more on-target than did Act One), its in-your-face performance giving the audience what they needed-and wanted-to feel from Spring Awakening.

Among those dewy-eyed young men, Regan Featherstone is wonderfully cast as Hanschen, exuding a certain sexuality (perhaps from an unfathomable depth of desire) that lends credibility to his performance throughout-and his Act Two seduction of Ernst (the always superb Ryan Bowie, whose stage presence should be studied by aspiring thespians so easily does he command the stage) was played to discomfiting perfection. The effortlessly charming Josh Bernaski, as the breast-obsessed Georg, attacks his role with relish, showing off his estimable talents in the process; and the handsome Rob Rodems is particularly good as Otto, his strong voice adding immeasurably to the overall effect of the ensemble's musical performance.

Ashley Laverty intelligently underplays the role of the abused Martha, making her plight possibly more horrifying that you might imagine, while Melanie Beck and Cassie Thompson (as Thea and Anna) show their complete commitment to their characters throughout the course of the play.

In fact, one of the most pleasing aspects of the production-from the perspective of a theater critic who sees young actors taking on theatrical challenges regularly-is the complete focus exhibited by the ensemble. They never seem to leave any moment in which they are existing onstage, giving the script-bound characters more emotional heft and the added gravitas of their commitment.

In addition to directing, choreographing and music directing (he conducts the show's score, which is beautifully played by a six-person band), Thayer is also responsible for the production's imaginative scenic design-a homoerotic homage to Abercrombie & Fitch-that recalls the set design of the Broadway production and the national touring company, though I can't help but ask: What's with the illuminated jack o' lanterns? Adam Kurtz's lighting design provides the necessary atmospherics for the production, while helping to further illuminate the musical's themes and topics.

Spring Awakening. Music by Duncan Sheik. Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Based upon the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed, music directed and choreographed by Tom Thayer. Presented by The Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through May 5. For details, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org.

 

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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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