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BWW Review: The Kids Aren't Alright in SPRING AWAKENING

When did you learn about sex? How? Who told you about "the birds and the bees," "making a baby," "when two people really love one another"? I'm not sure where I picked it up, though I'm fairly certain it wasn't from my parents. The gag reflex rising in my throat even at the thought makes me certain I never flat out asked my mother. So where did I learned the ins and out of puberty, sex, child birth, and so on?

I vaguely remember a sterile classroom, a traumatizing birthing video, and an elderly, silver-haired grade school teacher. I remember graphic anatomy books in later years, and a college professor who lectured on masturbation. What class was that again?

In any case the information got to me somehow, and I lived to tell the tale via hazy, inconsistent memories. mad Theatre of Tampa's production of SPRING AWAKENING, the first show of their 16th season, follows a group of adolescents in late 19th century Germany as they question what's happening to their bodies - physically and emotionally. Their search for answers through dance and music is comical, troubling, shocking, and sometimes tragic. Theirs is seemingly a world where the adults are not fully prepared to deal with these issues - for different reasons. Everyone has room for growth and/or change, and by the end of the show it happens for better or for worse.

Melchior Gabor (Nicolas Burgos) and Wendla Bergmann (Mallory Quinn) are the show's Will They-Won't They couple. Quinn's Wendla is naïve, sweet and unsure. Burgos' Melchoir is confident, knowing, and rebellious. Many of the show's more intimate moments are between these two, with their equally powerful voices. Quinn opened the show with a performance of "Mama Who Bore Me" so impressive that you wish she'd never leave the stage. Her voice is strong; her high notes crisp. We heard Burgos for the first time during "All That's Known", and although his singing was noteworthy throughout, I'm not above saying he and his hair were my favorite during "Totally Fucked."

Chelsea Hooker plays Martha Bessell, one of Wendla's young friends. Her voice is beautiful, deep and demands attention. It actually eclipsed Ilse Neumann's (Karli Marie Gundersen) during their rendition of "The Dark I Know Well." However, Gundersen shines during her solo, "Blue Wind."

If by some grace of whatever you believe in Adam Scott and John Gallagher, Jr. merged into one person, it would be Ricky Marenda as Moritz Stiefel. His command of the stage was obvious, and his voice was perfection.

Other characters don't get as much individual stage time, which is unfortunate because the actors are so good. For example, Cody Carlson as Hänschen Rilow, and Connor Alfonso Hodge as Ernst Röbel. Carlson is a joy to watch. His character is funny, sometimes brazen, and his face is incredibly emotive when singing. I remember one particular moment during "Touch Me" where Hodge comes across as so believably vulnerable. Kristy Noel Carlson plays Anna, and does so in a wheelchair, which is seamlessly fused into Mallory Quinn's modern choreography.

The live band was perfection. I'm not sure a pre-recorded score could've interlaced with the weight this cast the same way.

The set was minimal; a series of suspended chairs and a metal platform covered in a black cloth. I liked the chairs. I was drawn to them the minute I walked in. I found the platform - though necessary for the performance - somewhat distracting. I'm not sure if it was the exposed metal and wheels, or the draping, but it bothered me. A friend who accompanied me to the show suggested that maybe the look would've been more cohesive if there had been no draping at all; exposing the metal rods and mirroring the construction of the chairs.

Anthony Paul Gilkinson's talent for directing is obvious throughout. Themes of abuse, rape, suicide, abortion are bravely tackled with sensitivity and grace. However, the acting was uneven at times. There were moments when certain actors would have to engage without benefit of song, and these exchanges seemed slightly inauthentic when compared to the legitimacy shown when singing.

The entire cast come on stage and bare everything - some more literally than others. Overall it's a solid show and definitely worth seeing. "And so you should."

Who were the villains in this tale? Who were the victims? Were the victims truly blameless? Who determines the "correct" moral stance? SPRING AWAKENING is a story that stabs at uncomfortable topics, and asks you to question societal norms long after you've left the theatre.

So, on a scale of Wendla to Moritz, how would you rate your adolescence?

SPRING AWAKENING has its final performances Thursday - Sunday, September 15-18, at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. You can find tickets and information here.

Photo Credit: mad Theatre of Tampa, Inc.

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