Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Adapted from the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, with music by composer Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, the musical is about teenagers who are discovering sexuality but, due to the nature of the times, get very little information or guidance from the adults around them. With rape, suicide, abortion, child abuse, and homosexuality all present in the show, you can see why the original play created a stir in the late 1890s and why it was originally banned in Germany at that time.
The story follows three characters. Wendla is a young teenage girl who, when she asks her mother where babies comes from, is told that to have a baby a woman must love her husband with her whole heartnot exactly clear information for a budding young girl. Melchior and Moritz are teenage friends. They both question many things in life, including their strict and over-disciplining teachers and the erotic dreams and thoughts they have been having. The musical shows that teenagers today pretty much feel exactly the same way they did 100 years ago, and the way adults treat them has barely changed for the better.
The main theatrical device the show uses to connect the issues of 1890s Germany to the present is to have the characters use handheld microphones to sing their inner thoughts and hidden desires. They also sing like modern pop stars, using modern language, while the book of the show uses language from the late nineteenth century. So while the dialogue is firmly set in the past, the songs and lyrics are in the present. It works perfectly.
While director Kenny Grossman, choreographer Lynzee 4man, and the SYT creative team model their efforts on the original Broadway production team's contributions, all of whom were nominated for Tony Awards (winning three), Grossman's team also adds plenty of original touches. Grossman gets real, heartfelt, and nuanced performances from his young cast and doesn't shy away from any of the adult content of the show, doesn't cut a line or scene or eliminate any of the profanity of the show. The only change he makes is the inclusion of a blanket during a sex scene and the omission of the brief nudity that was in the Broadway production. Neither of these changes reduces the impact of those moments.
4man's energetic, athletic, and stylistic moves are natural expressions of the emotions the teens are dealing with. Bobby Sample and Grossman's set design is static and simple yet works well when combined with Naomi and Andi Marie Jordan's smashing period-perfect costumes and Josh Hontz's impressive lighting and clear sound design to whisk us back over 100 years ago. Mark 4Man is one of the best music directors in town and his contributions here are stellar, achieving both a lush sound with rich harmonies from the cast and a full, superb sound from the five-piece band. Also, the intimacy of the SYT space pulls the audience into the emotional content of the show in a way that you just can't get from a big Broadway theater or some of the other larger venues in town.
The SYT cast is exceptional, featuring some of the best teen talent in the Valley. Payton Bioletto is Wendla and she plays her in such a naïve, heartbreaking way that you can't help but feel for her and the struggles she encounters. Her singing is strong, clear, and touching. Vincent Pugliese instills Melchior with plenty of charm and his handsome, boyish looks and pure voice make it easy to see why so many people are drawn to the character. Bioletto and Pugliese form a realistic couple and are able to make you clearly understand the issues, fears and pain their characters encounter. Sam Primack as Moritz perfectly captures the anxiety-ridden nature of the part with a wild hairstyle that is completely in sync with the inner feelings of the character. Primack's nervous demeanor and forceful, expressive line delivery instantly show the intense pressure that Moritz is up against to succeed.
The supporting cast is just as good, including some who have amazing voices. Sophia Deyden is Ilse, the girl who had run away because she was being abused, and her solo in act two as well as her duet with Hahnna Christianson of "The Dark I Know Well" are stunning. Michael Schulz, Spencer Claus, Brandon Reyes, and Jeremy Yampolsky, who play Moritz and Melchior's schoolmates, sing with passion, force, and clarity during the solo sections of their songs as do Kathryn Robinson and Jasmine Bassham who play friends of Wendla. Schulz also brings the right amount of arrogance and mischievous behavior to his role while Claus is especially humorous as a student who lusts after his piano teacher.
Another conceit the show uses is to have all of the adult male and female parts played only by two people, thus showing that even though some of the adult characters are more responsive to the needs of the children, at the core, all adults are basically the same. Husband and wife Brenda and Ken Goodenberger play the Adult Women and Adult Men. They effectively give each character they play new manners and a different diction or speech pattern to set them apart from the other characters they play. They also form deep connections with the young cast, bringing a profound sense of realism to the piece.
Spring Awakening is a powerful and meaningful show. While the subject matter is heavy and there is plenty of unhappiness and despair throughout, the musical manages to show these are all realistic effects of a sexually oppressive culture, and the ending is moving and uplifting. Presenting this award winning show uncut and complete, with appropriate high school aged actors playing the main roles, adds an entirely new layer to a great story that presents many issues that still resonate today. Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of Spring Awakening is simply stunning.
Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of Spring Awakening runs through January 30th, 2016, with performances at 10620 N 43rd Avenue in Glendale. Tickets and information can be found at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or by calling 602.843.8318
Director: Kenny Grossman
Adult Women: Brenda Goodenberger