BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at Runway Theatre
In 2007, Dunken Sheik and Steven Sater's rock musical SPRING AWAKENING took home eight of the eleven Tony Awards it was nominated for, including the coveted Best Musical award. It was bold, new, edgy - and it caught the hearts and minds of everyone who saw it. Although the current local production at Runway Theatre is unlikely to be held to the same standards, the audience reaction to the company's opening night performance was every bit as excited about the show as the audiences in New York.
The show is set in the late 19th century, in a quietly repressed community in provincial Germany. Surprisingly, the show, which feels very contemporary and timely, is based on a play of the same title that was written in the late 19th century in Germany as a critique of prudish sexual oppression. The plot touches on themes of child abuse, censorship, homosexuality, naivety, abortion and suicide, all centered around the motif of the sexual awakening of growing adolescents. At Runway Theatre, these issues are approached head on, never dancing around the edgy topics. Although SPRING AWAKENING may cause some viewers to feel uneasy at times (or inspire a couple of walk-outs at intermission), the characters' individual stories are honest and serve as valuable lessons still relevant today.
As is often the case with community theatre, this production is heavily inspired by the work that was created for the Broadway productions (in this case, both the original 2006 production, as well as the 2015 Broadway revival). Director Derek Whitener and choreographer Christina Kudlicki Hoth have created a visually stimulating piece by handpicking their favorite moments of each production, and assembling them together with a focus on the aesthetic. Although this creates a lively presentation of the show's dramatic musical moments, the vision lacks fluidity, struggling to allow the book scenes to be as impactful as the songs that tend to dominate. Also, borrowing from two Broadway productions, with each Broadway director's unique approach to the piece, creates contrasting visions and there are moments in Runway's production that occasionally clash with one another. For example, there's a moment mid-Act Two when Melchior's inner monologue inspires some now-famous interpretive movement (in "Totally Fucked") ala the original Broadway production. Although the Runway audience did see this style of movement at the top of the show ("Mama Who Bore Me"), the concept feels out-of-place and disjointed from the rest of the piece. (The original Broadway did not have this disconnect, as the gestural vocabulary was a major theme throughout.) Whitener does offer his own new ideas to the work, most effectively in his setup to both acts (which I won't spoil). His version of the show also utilizes some creative foreshadowing and, although it sometimes read as overly literal, was a testament to his artistic expertise. Choreographer Hoth always had her best foot forward, with her strongest movers responsible for the majority of the expressive storytelling. The cast performed each musical number confidently and full of emotion, with each actor adjusting Hoth's movement to suit their character's unique personality.
The strongest suit of Runways performance is the passion that each actor independently delivers. While it's arguably easy to create angst or anguish on stage, Whitener's cast offers honesty and sincere emotion when they sing. Although some performers in the company are stronger singers than actors (or stronger actors than singers), the seventeen close-knit players appropriately compliment one another. Although the script allows the most stage time for Wendla, Ilse, Melchior, and Moritz, Whitener has staged his SPRING AWAKENING with the supporting characters joining in on the main action from time to time. And it's when the company is together onstage that the story is most impactful.
Despite any minor shortcomings (and some opening-night sound troubles), the talented cast at Runway Theatre kept the audience toe tapping through the upbeat score in Act One, and left hardly a dry eye in the house later in the show. The performance runs through June 12th, with tickets and more information available at www.runwaytheatre.com/