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BWW Review: Brave, Bold, and Beautiful SPRING AWAKENING at Lyric Music Theater

South Portland's Lyric Music Theater is taking a bold and daring step in presenting the 2006 musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 provocative play, Spring Awakening. The wrenching musical drama explores with a piercing honesty the lives of teenagers and their adult authority figures locked in a lethal struggle as the young men and women search for freedom of expression, sexual liberation and fulfillment, and the embrace of their true identities in a dark, corseted world of repression and convention.

The issues raised by Frank Wedekind's play remain as potent and relevant today as they did in the late 19th century, and the Steven Sater book and lyrics and Duncan Sheik music remain true to the essence of the piece. Wedekind's world - the world of Freud and nascent psychology - is a bleak place where adults abuse their children psychologically and physically, where creativity is stifled, and love - as a total expression of body and soul - is forbidden. In this dark universe, the young villagers long in secret and search for a path through the pain.

Winner of eight Tony Awards, Spring Awakening charted a course for later musicals like Next to Normal in dealing with the unspoken in an unvarnishEd Manner. The play touches on teen pregnancy and abortion, teen suicide, masturbation, homosexuality, sadism, child abuse, and the brave struggles of its young protagonists to come to terms with and to survive - or in the case of Melchior make sense of and escape from - their brutal world. The libretto adheres closely to the play, while the score, with its elements of folk and alternative rock, contemporizes the experience.

Spring Awakening is very much an ensemble work, and Lyric Music Theater has put together not only a fine cast, but also an excellent creative and production team. Director Jamie Lupien Swenson knows how to build the tension and savor the poignant moments, and she elicits the kind of commitment from her actors that makes this production distinguished.

Conducting the five-person band from the keyboards, Bob Gauthier navigates the tricky musical shifts, rhythms, and moods with skill. Victoria Perreault contributes the angular, anguished choreography that conjures up the original Expressionist context of the work. Steve Lupien creates a stark set in grays and neutrals with several levels that uses a moving center platform, select props (Margaret Barrasso, props), and rear projections to create the repressive village world, and then he colors it with bold splashes of color in his lighting design to express the characters' inner lives. Anna Halloran complements his design with black and white clothing for the young men and simple print dresses for the women. Scott Whiting manages the sound design as efficiently as possible in this somewhat problematic acoustic, achieving a generally pleasing balance.

The predominantly youthful cast performs with the intensity and honesty that are the hallmarks of a memorable theatre experience. Each of the supporting roles is brought to life with vivid individuality. Alyssa Rojecki creates a moving, frightened, timid, abused Martha, while Piper Kingston as Thea and Helen Bellafiore as Anna capture the troubled confusion of their adolescent world. Richard Russell offers a strong vocal/dance presence as Otto/Umbrecht; Ricky Brewster (Ernst/Rheinhold) and Caleb Streadwick (Hanschen/Rupert) give the audience a heart-stopping duet in the reprise of "The Word of Your Body" as they affirm their love; and Seth Crockett (Georg/Dieter) brings a poignant vulnerability to his character.

As the various adults in the play, Mark E. Dils make an appropriately stern, rigid, and unrelenting presence as the schoolmaster, and several of the boys' fathers, while Lynn C.Boren-McKellar delineates each of the older women nicely, making Frau Gabor a sympathetic helpless contrast to the well-meaning but ill-advised Frau Bergmann.

The central quartet of Melchior, Moritz, Wendla and Ilse serve as the emotional anchors of the drama. A strong vocal presence, Rachel Friedman is luminous as Wendla, brimming with sexual longing, confused, yearning for love, terrified, frightened, and trapped by feelings she does not fully understand. Rachel Grindle also brings an elegant soprano and a heartfelt emotional commitment to the role of the outcast Ilse, who for all her travails, manages to retain an air of innocence and optimism, contributing the lovely finale, "The Song of Purple Summer."Jake Boyce gives a dynamic vocal and dramatic performance as Moritz, conveying the youth's roller coaster emotions and his eventual spiral into suicide with a heart-rending, manic pathos.

But the core of the drama lies in the character of Melchior Gabor - Wedekind's alter ego - whose rebelliousness is at once his undoing and his ultimate salvation. Eric Berry-Sandelin gives a richly nuanced performance that is brave, beautiful, and, deeply honest. As an actor, he mines the myriad moods of the role- the gentleness, the repressed frustrations and passions, the free-thinking nonconformity, the quiet yet determined rebelliousness, the frankly sensual physicality, while maintaining an essential innocence, vulnerability, and purity. Vocally, he delivers his songs in a clear, unforced tenor, with an especially lovely command of head voice that illuminates the lyrical moments, but still is capable of robust ones like "Totally F*cked." Best of all this is a performance of remarkable subtlety and one of greater inner life - the kind that comes from that place where all true acting originates.

Lyric Music Theater is to be congratulated for tackling Spring Awakening and for bringing to the work its very best resources. This is not a commercial choice, but a deeply artistic one, stunningly produced, and as such it deserves the support of the theatre-loving Portland community. Buy a ticket today and be prepared to experience the catharsis that is the hallmark of meaningful theatre!

Photos courtesy of Lyric Music Theater, Linwood Leland, photographer

Spring Awakening runs at Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer St., South Portland, ME from March 17-April 2, 2017. 207-799-1421

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold