Palm Canyon Theatre's SPRING AWAKENING is Inventive, Exciting, and Delightful
It's a shame that our lack of summer population will limit the houses at Palm Canyon Theatre's current production of Spring Awakening because it is one of the most inventive and exciting musicals to be presented this season. The story of adolescents in late 19th century Germany discovering and dealing with their blossoming sexuality is combined with folk music and some very angry rock to deliver a still-relevant story. The musical is actually based on an 1891 German script of the same name. We visit a world where any sexual reference is taboo, and can only be suggested by innuendo.
We first meet Welenda (Jamie Leigh Walker), a teenager examining her changing body in the mirror. She asks her mother (Morgana Corelli, who plays all the adult women) to explain where babies come from, suspecting it has something to do with her new womanly curves. Her mom cops out by saying that babies are simply a result of getting married and being happy together. As Welenda sings "Mama Who Bore Me," a group of four other girls (Malia Botello, Chalise Kunz, Megan Ramirez, and Marella Sabio) join her. When they start singing, they all produce wireless microphones and sing with them close to their mouths, a delightfully jarring anachronism with their period costumes and hair.
We next see a group of six male students seated with military precision and austerity, all dressed in identical plaid three-piece suits with knickers that hit just below the knees. Top marks to costumer Derik Shopinski on those suits. The boys are being led through an incredibly dull Latin class by a strict professor (all adult males are delightfully - if chillingly - played by Paul Grant). One of the boys, Moritz (M. Carrick O'Dowd) makes a mistake in his Latin recitation and the professor explodes. Melchior (Nicholas Sloan), the strongest and best-looking boy in the class, tries to come to Moritz's rescue, but the professor attacks Melchior.
After class, the other boys (Noah Arce, Aidan Bosworth, Scott Clinkscales and Jesus Sandoval) join Melchior and Moritz to discuss the erotic thoughts and dreams they have all been having as they sing "The Bitch of Living." Again, radio mics pop out of their jackets, are held close to their mouths, and many of their dance moves (wonderfully staged by Marella Sabio) involve stomping their feet on the floor, and seemingly trying to shake the angst out of their bodies with wild, erratic movements.
Jamie Leigh Walker and her real-life hubby, Nicholas Sloan, own center stage as the teens who explore each other emotionally and physically. It's hard to believe they are the same two actors who were chasing through the slums of Manhattan in Guys & Dolls a few months ago. Here, both of them have effectively channeled teenagers, and they both sing like angels. A strong nod also to M. Carrick O'Dowd whose simple-minded Moritz has every flaw severely attacked by his teachers and his parents. He honestly looks like he might explode on stage as he tries to verbalize the anxiety and confusion he feels as his mind is constantly focused on sex, both while waking and sleeping.
A quick shout-out here to Jodie Garcia for her work on hair, especially the boy students. Moritz's hair is piled at least 6" above his head, and Aiden Boseworth's exploding curls have a life of their own, while Nick Sloan's hair pulled down into bangs across his forehead helped his youthful look.
This production celebrates the successful union of all elements - acting, design, music, dance - and such a union always indicates a terrific director, in this case, Luke Rainey. The script is very episodic, and he smoothly tied the various elements together by isolating different parts of the stage - e.g., one story line going on at a grand piano at the extreme left side of the auditorium, another set on the opposite side of the stage, and still another center stage, jumping from one to another with instant light changes. Another technique was to keep the differing scenes tightly following one another ("jump cuts" in film). The energy level of the entire production was indicative of adolescents with hormones running rampant, and at some point, I realized that I was empathizing with the kids, facing the adults as the enemy. What a treat that was for a viewer of a certain age!
Top marks also for musical director, Scott T. Smith. He brought outstanding vocal performances out of every individual in the show. There were absolutely no weak links. He also somehow managed to achieve the richest, most present playback of the recorded accompaniment that I have ever heard in any Valley theatre.
Resident designer J. W. Layne has given us an appropriately gloomy unit set, including a full-stage drop hinting at a black-and-white wall. His outstanding achievement, though, was his lighting design. Just as the script mashes up historical and modern elements, his lighting design goes from serviceable naturalism to heavy rock, aided by pumping smoke through the air, angry red washes, colored shafts piercing through the smoke, and a couple of extremely effective fixed spot positions. And thank you Danny Hargreaves and Hanna McCall for your quick and accurate work on follow spots.
I first saw this musical at the Hollywood Pantages, a 3,000+ seat auditorium, and I got nothing from it. Now I know it's because the show is a tale of intimacy. PCT's staging has nailed that perfectly. It is suggested that no one under 18 attend, and be aware that there is some graphic language (the audience loved a song called "Totally F**ked"), simulated masturbation, a bit of an exposed butt, and even boys kissing, but hey, we live in Palm Springs. If that offends you, you made a wrong turn somewhere along the line!
Spring Awakening only plays for two weekends, through July 14. Tickets and further information are available at www.PalmCanyonTheatre.org or by phoning 760-323-5123.
Season tickets for the outstanding 2019/2020 season are also available at the website or theatre box office through July 31, and highly recommended!
Photo by Paul Hayashi