BWW Review: Theatre Under The Stars Ushers in a SPRING AWAKENING
Theatre Under The Stars' Spring Awakening does more than entertain its audiences. It enlivens the fifty first season of the massive theatre known for their proclivity for golden age musicals and traditional fare and re-introduces to Houston audiences a production that highlights still-relevant subjects such as child abuse, teen suicide, sex education, gender politics, abortion and more.
Spring Awakening first stormed Broadway in 2006, winning for Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction and Best Musical, garnering a Grammy for Best Show Album, catapulting it's performers into bonafide stars and cementing that sometimes sweet, sometimes shocking pop-rock-folk score into everyone's musical theatre repertoire. In the likeness of the famous rock musicals before it, most notably Rent and Hair, it has since created a cult following of fans who remind us that the show is just as vital now as it was then.
Before I even knew what show the song was from, I was familiar with the beautifully haunting melody of the show's opener "Mama Who Bore Me", about a young girl's disappointments with her mother regarding her sexual education.
Thirteen years after its critically acclaimed release, Duncan Sheik's score remains beautifully haunting. It challenges the listener to lean in and interpret its poetry or be inspired by its frankness. His work exerts that bold lyrics such as "I Don't Do Sadness" or "Touch Me/Just Like That" can indeed exist within the same realm as "I'm at home with a ghost, who got left in the cold/Who knocks at my peace/with no keys to my soul" and "All Shall Know The Wonder/Of Purple Summer". The skilled musicians play each song with expert finesse to provide rollicking intensity or light underscoring if needed.
By scenic designer Ryan McGettigan placing the musicians onstage, it challenges the audience to tune in even more than they normally would and encourages the appropriate level of immediacy. Even in the midst of death and darkness, this show always feels alive. The three level scaffolding system was breathtakingly revealed within the opening number to astounding applause. The large gray structure works well with establishing the epic emotional arc of the show. This, coupled with the onstage pits and pools, supported the grand scale of the event to positive effect.
Director Taibi Magar's excellently creative staging kept the story driving along at an engaging pace while still producing moments of great stillness and intimacy. Such a delicate balance was reminiscent of the finest shows I have seen on Broadway, those that make you feel more alive than ever before. There was clearly great communication and trust amongst Magar and her design team, who bring their best to play in order to tell this beautiful story of tenderness and longing.
Two time Tony Award winner Bradley King (The Great Comet, Hadestown) brilliantly lights the show as the show itself were a rock concert, with endless moments of intensity, color and play. At times the lights even flash toward the audience to make sure they are still engaged into the anthems beings delivered!
Costume designer Jen Caprio kept her work effectively minimalistic by clothing the actors in garments that exhibited the setting of late 19th century Germany while finding opportunities to add a modern flair. Capricio's cohesive color palette and attention to detail, such as Ilse's flowing cape when she lives with the artist community, or Wendla's flower basket, proved to be hugely beneficial to an already stellar production. Marlana Doyle's choreography propels the storytelling and establishes atmosphere beautifully. Freedom and happiness is symbolized by the cast's loose bodies and freeform movement where as societal constriction is shown with hard angles and sustained control. A particularly fine moment was "The Blue Mirror" a scene when Melchior is ridden with guilt of his decisions. The male ensemble arises with militaristic lines and slow controlled steps reminiscent of Nazi Germany as though they are his thoughts haunting him along the way.
Sound mixing and level balancing is always difficult regarding producing musicals, especially rock musicals with large casts. This proved to be a challenge for this production as it has been frequently for TUTS' musicals. Some characters were not heard altogether, some principals were not showcased during solo lines and etc. Moreover, throughout the show the actors provide their own handheld microphone, usually hidden within their garment, to sing their number. This was a convention introduced within the Broadway production to highlight the character's need to be heard, further the storytelling and provide a visual reference to rock concerts.
However, the timing of this between the actors and technicians provided to be unclear or unfocused at times. Some of the actors are still seemingly getting familiar with using a handheld microphone in character as a device to further the story rather than take them out of character entirely. Towing the balance between representational and presentational is what makes this show such a difficult production and will be solidified once the show finds its true rhythm.
TUTS' effort to include more local artists have clearly been heard and felt to positive acclaim. The production is jam-packed with a powerhouse cast, comprised largely of talented Texans that include Humphrey School of the Arts students and Sam Houston State University alum. Each performer pours their heart into every moment onstage, whether they are center stage belting their heart out or just hanging in the rafters to witness the story, they all are a vital part to the cohesive community onstage. Under Alex Navarro's musical direction, the cast sounds just as good, if not better, than the original Broadway cast recording. Each of Sheik's tricky blue harmonies are clear and concise, the vocal riffs and ad-libs are kept supplementary and provide a beautiful pay off for the audience. Particularly within the principal actors, each voice is distinctive and the songs are executed with technical precision without flashing the technique.
The insanely talented cast provided fresh interpretations to characters made so popular by the actors who created them that pleasantly surprised many of us familiar with the show. The always stellar Raven Justine Troup brought her usual dry humor and vocal flair to Ilse, which proved an entertaining change from previous productions.
Similarly, the lead character Melchior Gabor, usually played by men who resemble its originator Johnathan Gross, was brought to us by Wonza Johnson with a quirky tenderness. Johnson, an African-American man, is probably the first Black Melchior I have ever seen. With the strength of his generously vulnerable performance, we should be so lucky to see more Melchior's of color in the future. His voice fit the difficult Sheik score like a glove, and his interpretation of lofty lyrics such as "A Shadow Passed/A Shadow Passed/Yearning, Yearning for the fool it called a home" proved just as clear as if he wrote them himself. A Hamilton alum, Johnson is an atypical leading man that we need to see more of.
His work with Sophia Introna's divinely nuanced Wendla particularly shines, the two of them showing a chemistry and trust that feels authentic. Their "The Word of Your Body" lingers on way after the scene ends, the audience still transfixed by their performances.
Other highlights within the diverse and generous cast are Liz Mikel and Brian Mathis, who play an array of adults and parents who just don't understand. Each character is brilliantly given a distinction and clarity without feeling cartoonish. Mathis and Mikel's commanding stage presence almost steal the show each time they are onstage, either preening over teenagers, plotting academic cover-ups or avoiding their children's sexual inquiries. Juliette Redden performed "The Dark I Know Well" with an unforgettable steely grit as Martha, the young girl being abused by her own father. Each actor worked to connect with the audience and really take the show into their own hands.
It is an act of revolution to perform this play with its subject matter of teen abortion, homosexuality, masturbation and suicide in this political climate and with a diverse cast in a racially charged society. It is an act of revolution for a fifty-one year old institution cemented in cultural relevancy by its performances of grand-scale Golden Age musicals to perform this intimately daring show about young people and sex. It is my hope that this monumental production will indeed be an awakening for Houston that our world onstage should reflect that of our world offstage. One that is diverse, progressive, sometimes challenging and ultimately, always entertaining.
SPRING AWAKENING. Through October 20, 2019. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Street. For information, please call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$129.