BWW Reviews: Kensington's SPRING AWAKENING Deserves 'A' For Effort
19th century German school kids express their frustrations about parental pressure, the expectations of authorities, abuse, sex, and growing up in general in Steven Sater (Book and Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik's (Music) 2007 Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening. Since the successful Off-Broadway and Broadway runs of this rock musical based on the controversial 19th century play by Frank Wedekind, scores of regional professional theatres, and now community theatres and colleges have taken a stab at telling the compelling story of teenage angst and repression. This list now includes Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT), which has brought contemporary musicals such as Ragtime, Rent, Parade, and Next to Normal to the DC suburbs in Maryland in recent seasons.
Unfortunately, even with a mostly solid cast of singers, Emily Zickler's direction (or lack thereof) doesn't allow audiences to fully appreciate the power of the material, particularly in the book scenes. The cast - to its credit and that of musical director Valerie A. Higgs - comes most to life with youthful exuberance during the production's many musical numbers, nicely aided by a rocking yet rather tight seven-piece band. Featuring voices that range from adequate to very, very good, the talent proves capable of taking on wistful ballads such as "I Believe" and "The Song of Purple Summer" and the more pop-rock and angst-ridden "My Junk" and "Totally Fucked." The latter song is combined with some rather appropriate choreography (Emily Zickler) even if it is derivative of the original.
The ensemble numbers featuring both the boys and the girls achieve the best vocal blend and pleasant sound. The rock ones don't necessarily shake the theatre up as they have done elsewhere, but there is some energy. Three cast members, however, achieve standout moments in their time singing alone in the spotlight.
As one of our main protagonists Wendla, Emily Dey is appropriately innocent yet inquisitive and perceptive throughout "Mama Who Bore Me" and "Whispering," and mixes that nicely with vocals that would be well-suited for many professional productions. "Whispering," I should mention, rarely grabs my attention lyrically speaking, but Ms. Dey conveys the meaning of the song in a way that is rather compelling and gave me a new appreciation for it.
Joanna Frezzo, as Ilse - the young woman who fled the life of repression and abuse for a new kind of chaos - provides us with rich vocals on "The Dark I Know Well" (with Catherine Callahan as the now abused Martha) and "Blue Wind." Though I did not think that she connected with the songs' lyrics at the performance I witnessed on opening night, I did more than appreciate her obvious vocal talent. Perhaps a decision to sing these songs with blank stares signifies her character's emotional numbness, but it does not allow for a full audience connection to the emotion of the song.
As Moritz, a young man wilting under the pressures of school, the high-energy, charmingly awkward, and scene-stealing Harrison Smith makes every moment count. Playing with dynamics during "I Don't Do Sadness," he also achieves a connection with the song's meaning and the challenges his particular character is experiencing in a way that many of the other cast members do not. He caught my attention in the opening ensemble number "The Bitch of Living" and kept it throughout the show, never waning. Here, I might add that I usually find Moritz in most productions to be really grating, but Harrison managed to make me care about the young man and see him as a human rather than a cartoon.
As I discuss vocal performances, I should mention that in many productions of this show, the onstage band is an integral part of the concept. The cast members can play off the musicians in an organic and direct way, the musicians bring a high level of energy, and a rock concert-like atmosphere is achieved. Though I did miss the onstage band at KAT, the decision to put the band behind the stage for logistics or other reasons did not overwhelmingly detract from the show. Sound balance/mix proved an issue on opening night. A decision to mic the band allowed us to hear every non-musical noise emanating from the area, but the cast members' mics did not always allow the full extent of their voices to be heard in the house. Though the vocalists were never inaudible ,there was not a great sound mix between the cast and band's mics. I am hopeful this can be addressed in future performances as this is, after all, a rock musical in which both elements need to work together to create one memorable one.
Though tasked with telling an emotion-filled story that includes a central plot point of Wendla and the rebellious Melchior (a rather forgettable and bland Ryan Alan Jones) coming together in ways the authority figures in their lives might not appreciate, Zickler chooses to convey the story in a rather tame way. Whether an artistic choice or not, her approach to not only this crucial scene - chaste as it was featuring an utter lack of chemistry or tension of any kind between Jones and Dey - but every book scene fail to let any of them gain any momentum and bring the audience in. I was left not caring about what happened to most of the characters as they meandered through the stage discussing the trials and tribulations of their lives in a nonchalant way. It seemed as if every book scene was treated as a throwaway means to get to another musical number. There's no reason to get over-dramatic and campy when telling this tale, even if Zickler unfortunately shows that tendency in the few scenes with the authority figures (Marni Ratner Whelan and Chris Gillespie) conspiring with one another. However, there is something to be said about making it emotionally resonant and truthful.
A combination of realistic and more theatrical set pieces (Anna Britton), period-appropriate costumes (Eleanor Dicks) prove beneficial to setting time and place. The choices to use several panels to establish scenes in houses - contrasting them from the many that occur outside - did seem rather pointless to my mind and only complicated scene changes, which were far from fast, but instead tremendously disrupted the flow of the presentation. Between that and several flubbed lighting cues on opening night, it seemed to me that there are still some technical elements to work out. It's probable these kinks will resolve themselves as the run progresses.
All in all, I've seen much better from KAT and usually find its work to be a step above what you'd find in most non-professional theatres in our area. This is not the case here, but the team does deserve an 'A' for effort. All in all, it's a standard community theatre production that gives a chance for a new director, whose previous experience is as a lead actress in KAT productions and some direction experience in college, to experiment. I may have felt upon viewing that she didn't quite grasp the finer points of this musical which led to a rather disjointed and underwhelming production, but nonetheless, she gave it a good go.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Show Graphic: Courtesy of KAT website.