BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING: A ROCK MUSICAL at University of Nebraska-Omaha Theatre Will Touch You

BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING: A ROCK MUSICAL at University of Nebraska-Omaha Theatre Will Touch You

Something new from something old; something so good from something "offensive." The 1891 play "An Awakening of Spring: A Tragedy of Childhood" written by German playwright Frank Wedekind was originally banned as scandalous. His writings which criticized the mores of his time often got him into trouble. He spent time in prison for "lese majesty," the crime of offending the dignity of a reigning sovereign or state. Yet out of his offensive writings, this crowned jewel of musical theatre arose.

SPRING AWAKENING: THE ROCK MUSICAL tells the stories of young people running through the gamut of sexual issues: incest, homosexuality, rape, masturbation, abortion. It's all there out in the open for the audience to watch in some fairly explicit scenes. But this is not just a raunchy peek into bedrooms of the teens. It is a sober look into the hearts and minds of these kids on the cusp of adulthood as they navigate their turbulent lives. It is a moving, heartfelt story that reaches beyond the centuries.

Steven Sater adapted Wedekind's play for Broadway. It ran from 2006-2009, winning several Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards. Duncan Sheik wrote the Grammy Award winning score with lyrics by Sater. This masterpiece music invades your mind and takes up residence. It sweeps you away with haunting melodies, and then startles you awake with hard-driving rock.

In 2015, a revival of SPRING AWAKENING was launched with a surprising twist: half of the cast was deaf. Deaf West Theatre's production incorporated sign language, further emphasizing the difficulties young people had in communicating with adults. This unique production scored additional multiple awards and wide acclaim.

This month University of Nebraska-Omaha Theatre is performing SPRING AWAKENING: THE ROCK MUSICAL at the Weber Fine Arts Building. Taking on this hugely popular musical, co-directors Doran Schmidt and Wai Yim have pulled together a fine cast and rock band and have implemented their own take on the production.

Staging choices are interesting. There is a spatial disparity which I found somewhat disturbing, but it may serve to emphasize the expanse between 19th century Germany and today. The mother enacts throwing her apron over the head of her child, the father slaps his son...both done on two separate levels with no physical contact between the individuals.

The set, created by scenic designer Steven Williams, is a two-story, three-dimensional black chalkboard. The entire façade is covered with chalk markings that you might see in the school where the characters struggle to learn Latin while they simultaneously learn about sex outside the classroom. These markings are used in a creative way in the telling of the story.

Casting is solid. Ryan McCann as Melchior is pop star material with charming good looks and a very pleasing voice. He plays a softer Melchior until the whipping and then the date-rape scene, which makes his actions seem incongruous. Other productions of SPRING AWAKENING that I have seen imagined the interaction between Melchior and Wendla a curious searching between two young people rather than an act of aggression on the part of the boy.

Roni Shelley Perez as Wendla and McCann are guilty pleasures to the ear.

Wendla, aware of new feelings but unaware of the facts of life, can't convince her mother (Echelle Childers) to teach her, so she turns to Melchior. Perez knows her character well and exudes a natural innocence. Her enunciation is distinct; her tone sweet. She never misses a note and we never miss a word.

We do miss a few words, however, when the band, consisting of keyboards, guitars and drums and seated at the back of the stage, rocks out a bit too exuberantly at times, drowning out the voices of some of the softer voiced cast. Nick Jansen (Moritz), well suited to the angst-ridden rock songs, sings out strong and sure.

Jansen portrays Moritz as a not so sure awkward young man who will never be able to rise up to adult expectations. He suffers from disappointing his father and his troubling dreams. He stole my heart and I grieve for him.

Bohemian Ilse (Bethany Bresnahan) tries to bridge the insurmountable gulf between hope and Moritz' despair in "Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind." She empathizes with Martha (Regina Palmer) as she reveals her nighttime horrors in anguished song, "The Dark I Know Well." Melchior (McCann) struggles with loss in "Those You've Known."

But probably the song that will stay with audiences longest is the group number, "Mama Who Bore Me." The rhythm, the harmony, the excitement are contagious. You cannot sit through it without moving your body.

SPRING AWAKENING is an emotional whirlwind. It does do sadness. It does do despair. It does do loss. It hits every nerve. It touches me.

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From This Author Christine Swerczek

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