BWW Review: Intimate SPRING AWAKENING at Gloucester Stage Company
Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Based on the play by Frank Wedekind; Directed by Eric C. Engel, Musical Direction by Catherine Stornetta, Choreography by Jodi Leigh Allen; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Gail A. Buckley; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith
CAST: Melody Madarasz, Amelia Broome, Mary Nepi, Meghan LaFlam, Lydia Baldwin, Sarah Muirhead, Paul Farwell, Daniel Scott Walton, Andrew Oberstein, Jordan Ford, Chris Renalds, Ross Mumford, Phil Tayler
Performances through July 14 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
In a season tagged with the theme "Writes of Passage," the Gloucester Stage Company boldly begins with the 2007 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Spring Awakening, a groundbreaking rock musical about adolescent love in an era of repression. Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 German expressionist play, Steven Sater (Book & Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (Music) remained true to the original text while composing songs that give voice to the thoughts and feelings of contemporary teens experiencing frustrations, resentments, and discoveries which are timeless and universal. By programming Spring Awakening and directing it with sensitivity, Artistic Director Eric C. Engel steps up as an unapologetic champion for disenfranchised youth who are made to suffer for the ineptitude of their adult overseers.
Joining Engel at the artistic helm are Musical Director Catherine Stornetta (GSC debut) and Choreographer Jodi Leigh Allen. The thirteen-member cast has Amelia Broome and Paul Farwell playing all of the adult roles (five and ten, respectively), and Melody Madarasz (Wendla), Phil Tayler (Melchior), and Ross Mumford (Moritz) in featured roles. Tayler, Mumford, and the rest of the ensemble are all making their Gloucester Stage debuts, but most have ties to The Boston Conservatory or Emerson College with lots of regional theatre credits on their resumés. Their shared traits include solid professionalism, startling intensity, and an energy level that nearly vibrates. Juxtaposed with the nuanced portrayals served up by Broome and Farwell, Engel has a baker's dozen of incredible individual performances.
The background on Spring Awakening is that the original play was banned for its blunt depiction of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse, and suicide. In their musical version, Sater and Sheik do not shy away from these topics and the "in-your-face" nature of the story is not for everyone, especially pre-teens. Having seen the national tour four years ago, my reaction was ho-hum and I determined that the appeal of the show was for a different demographic. However, as often happens when regional theaters produce their versions of big Broadway musicals, Spring Awakening translates well to the smaller (190 seats) space. The intimacy afforded by the thrust stage at Gloucester and the boy/girl-next-door fresh-faced young actors and actresses make the play resonate and hit home on a more personal level.
Tayler is commanding as the boy at the head of the class, whose knowledge and vision tend to get him into trouble with the autocratic adults. Although he is passionate, he is also easygoing and comfortable in his own skin with the other students. When Melchior and Wendla come together, Tayler mixes softness and longing with a rising tide of desire and need, and he is both raw and intense as he descends into the depths of his character's decompensation. Madarasz's story arc parallels Tayler's and requires her to travel from pure innocence to knowing guilt. At the beginning, she is a curious girl when she sings "Mama Who Bore Me," but her voice reflects a wiser young woman at the start of the second act ("The Guilty Ones").
Another powerful performance comes from Mumford who seems to be spring-loaded as he caroms around the stage. Although I question the interpretation of the character - his Moritz starts out as a major weirdo with Little Room to change for the worse - he conveys the pain and anguish the boy feels. He shares a poignant scene with Sarah Muirhead (Ilse) whose lovely voice elevates the poetry of "Blue Wind" and "The Song of Purple Summer." The rest of the girls - Mary Nepi, Meghan LaFlam, and Lydia Baldwin - are so deliciously girlish, and the boys - Daniel Scott Walton, Andrew Oberstein, Jordan Ford, and Chris Renalds - exude testosterone. As good as the acting is across the board, the vocals in the ensemble surpass it. Each time any one of the boys or girls is featured in part of a song, we hear stunning individual quality.
Spring Awakening is not sung-through, but most of what we know about the characters' inner lives comes from their songs. Stornetta and five musicians on cello, violin, drums, guitar, and bass provide haunting accompaniment, and Allen's choreography lets the kids cut loose in a way their society does not allow. In one cathartic number in act two, the energy level is so frenetic that the stomping onstage reverberates throughout the house. Engel also brings the action into the audience, employing the aisles and alleyways for a handful of scenes, and requires us to use our imaginations to fill in what is not defined by Jenna McFarland Lord's minimalist set. A steel bridge may suggest connection or disruption, depending on its position, and Russ Swift's lighting design casts dramatic shadows or bright illumination to fit the tenor of a scene. Skillful design of the girls' frocks and the boys' school uniforms by Gail A. Buckley reflects the fashion and repression of the era.
At the talk back following the press opening performance on Sunday, there was a generational divide between the company and the audience members who stayed for the discussion. However, I hasten to make clear that the divide was not a gap as there was great appreciation and empathy expressed by those in attendance for the insightful, emotional portrayals. For their part, the actors are not so far removed from the age of their characters and accept the responsibility of speaking for them. This is the kind of dialogue that theater is meant to promote. Kudos to Engel and company for starting the conversation.