SPRING AWAKENING Well-Sung and Well-Performed by Stillpointe
For a winner of the Tony for Best Musical (for 2006) and seven other Tonys as well, Spring Awakening had a relatively short Broadway run (fewer than 900 performances), and was widely licensed for performance almost immediately thereafter, a boon to regional and community companies willing to take on the adult subject matter (adolescents coming of age sexually). There have been a number of productions in the greater Baltimore region in recent years, the latest arriving courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre at Area 405.
I suspect most readers are familiar with the show, but for the few uninitiated among you, it is an unusual updating of an old play, Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen [Spring's Awakening] (1891), a cri de coeur against the repression German bourgeois adults of that era visited upon their young both by imparting and enforcing taboos against normal sexual behaviors and by restricting information about sex, most notably the way in which babies are made. The play was regarded as scandalous, banned in New York and London. Owing in part to its many ties to a particular time and place, the play is seldom performed today. It was the genius of the musical's creators, Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), to modernize Wedekind's radicalism by setting the youngsters' interior monologues to music. Those monologues, freed from any mooring to 19th-century Germany, were phrased with contemporary slang and awareness of today's technology, and accompanied by music whose stylistic palette ranges from modernist composition to rock. Critic Adam Feldman wrote, accurately: "This is not the sound of your parents' cast album; this is the sound of your iPod, of alt-rock radio, of late-night parties in a melancholy mood." (Okay, references to iPods and alt-rock radio read as kind of 2006 today, but you get the idea.) The resulting work is powerful and moving, and, as I have observed at other stagings, resonates deeply with young audiences, even ones arriving with less-than-average familiarity with the theater.
Dealing seriously with provocative material like masturbation, incest, child abuse, masochism, homosexuality, abortion, sex education, homelessness and suicide, it is a fitting show for Stillpointe. Since I've been following it, the company has tended to embrace the challenging side of the musical theater repertoire, most recently with productions of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and the somewhat Brechtian Urinetown, material too cerebral and/or edgy for most dinner theaters. It proudly pays stipends to its performers, unlike many community-based theaters, and uses live pit bands, not recordings. Perhaps as a result of these resource commitments, in other respects Stillpointe tends to be minimalist; stagings are not lavish, and the venues are not typical dedicated theater spaces.
These traits work both with and against this staging. The vocal talent on display is outstanding, and the performances are of professional quality, especially those of the principals: Jennie Phelps as Wendla, the girl whose erotic explorations bring both fulfilment and tragedy, Paul Kennedy as Melchior, standard-bearer for a more enlightened future, and Nick Fruit as Moritz, Melchior's troubled young friend for whom sexual and intellectual development seem overwhelming. The two older performers tasked with portraying all of the adults, B. Thomas Rinaldi and Courtney Proctor, each convincingly sketch out a series of distinct personalities.
That said, Stillpointe still has not solved its venue problem. It was a positive move to take this production out of the space for which it was originally slotted, in the chapter house of the United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon which had made Urinetown so challenging, and bring it to Area 405. The new space, known for art shows and fund-raising events, has much better acoustics and accessibility than United Methodist. But, in keeping with its history as a converted industrial site, Area 405 also sports pillars partially blocking most if not all sight-lines, pretty much guaranteeing that each important part of the show will take place out of some audience-members' view. Ryan Haase, the director of the show, announced at the outset that the troupe is still searching for the right venue for an upcoming production, and we can all wish Stillpointe success in this search, because it really is vital.
The move has also left unresolved another sound-related issue I have noted before, which is the volume imbalance between the band and the singers. The very competent instrumentalists, directed by Charlotte Evans, still frequently drown out the singers. (Other audience members I spoke with volunteered this criticism to me unprompted.) Unlike at United Methodist, this seems to be not even partly an acoustics problem but simply a sound design one; whatever the house in which a show is performed, instruments generally tend to drown out singers, which is one reason Broadway musicals mike their performers (and have since the 1970s). (Even brassy-voiced Ethel Merman was miked.) To shine as brightly as it deserves to, Stillpointe would do well to put amplification of the singers' voices on its to-do list along with finding a venue more conducive to visibility.
None of these problems mean audiences should steer clear; with acting and singing at this level, and with such a strong, moving work, this rendering of Spring Awakening packs a punch, and will reward any evening's theater-going. Unfortunately, next weekend is the last in this run, so dispatch will be necessary to catch it.
Spring Awakening, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, directed by Ryan Haase, presented by Stillpointe Theatre through October 20 at Area 405, 405 E. Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $30 + $2.50 fees at https://stillpointetheatre.ticketleap.com/spring-awakening/. Violence, gunfire, adult situations and language, sexual subject matter.