Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
One of the many great benefits of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Studio Series is getting to see many newer shows, and in an intimate space. CCM's current offering is Spring Awakening, which won the 2007 Tony Award for Best New Musical. This unconventional musical combines contemporary sounding songs with a story that takes place over a century ago, and has subject matter that is fitting for a collegiate staging. This solidly mounted and well performed production is just the latest in what has been one of the best opportunities to see great (and free) theater in town for decades.
Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the controversial 1891 German play of the same title by Frank Wedekind. The show follows a group of teens during that time period trying to deal with their budding and confusing sexuality in a society that represses any discussion on the topic whatsoever. Central to the story are innocent Wendla, rebellious Melchior, and intensely confused Moritz. Their attempts to understand and explore these thoughts and feelings within that world's strict boundaries have devastating results. The dark story, which addresses topics such as abortion, incest, suicide and masturbation, was banned in Germany for decades.
The storytelling for this version is very unique. Most of the dialogue is told in what would be a described as a fairly straightforward English translation of late 1800s German play. However, when the characters break into song, the musical choice is modern-day alternative and the lyrics are decidedly 21st century. The juxtaposition of going from hearing formal "old-fashioned" speaking to rock music with lyrics including current day references such as "junk," "stereo," "cool" and "crash and burn" can be jarring at first.
The book by Steven Sater clearly tells the story, and earned him a Tony Award. There is just enough humor to balance out an otherwise downer of a tale, and the changes from the original Wedekind play serve this version well (though the second act does somewhat drag). The music by Duncan Sheik is one of the primary assets of the show, with highly melodic tunes (aided by first-rate orchestrations also by Sheik and great vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo) that capture the emotion and tone of the messages within each song wonderfully. The lyrics by Mr. Sater are appropriate to the musical style and story, but come across as lazy in form. The lyrics contain false rhymes or displaced accents, and lack the level of craft usually associated with musical theater standards. Song highlights from this Tony Award winning score include "Mama Who Bore Me" (especially effective in the reprise version), the pounding "The Bitch of Living," which conveys the boys' frustration at all things adolescent, "Touch Me," and the haunting "Left Behind."
Spring Awakening is a good fit for CCM in that most of the roles are that of teens not too much younger than the actors portraying them. The three leads at CCM all provide strong vocals (though they excel more in the more traditional musical theater sounding songs than the rock heavy numbers), but truly shine in the acting department. Max Clayton is an intense, intelligent Melchior and displays a strong stage presence throughout. Jennifer Brissman (Wendla) is endearing and conveys the innocence and longing of the naïve teen just wishing to know how the world works. As Moritz, Matt Hill skillfully embodies the conflicted nature of a boy trying to understand his changing body and mind in a world unwilling to let him, and doesn't go over the top in his portrayal as is sometimes seen with this role.
The entire ensemble does extremely well in keeping up a high energy level and jumping (both literally and figuratively) back and forth between the various styles of the piece. Jennifer Hickman (Martha) and Alysha Deslorieux (Ilse) show off great soulful voices in "The Dark I Know Well," and Collin Kessler and Kelsey Crismon provide nicely nuanced portrayals of the many adult characters, helping to distinguish each from one another. The dry humor of Hanschen is handled very well by Julian Decker.
Director Steven Goldstein provides an apt tone and has extracted dedicated performances from his cast. There are some similarities to the original Broadway staging (the hand held microphones are still used), but there is much originality as well. The ensemble is used very effectively throughout, and the staging of "Those You've Known" is a vast improvement over the New York production. For this production, the black box theater space is configured as a thrust stage with seating on three sides, but there are too many times where the blocking only addresses the front section of the audience. The choreography by Diane Lala captures the angst of the teens and fits the modern pulse of the music, but isn't just a copy of the Broadway dances by Bill T. Jones. Trevor Gomes leads a skilled 7-piece orchestra.
The set design by Stacey Szczepanik features a raised rectangular wooden stage, with chairs and benches which are moved on and off. Behind the stage area is a brick wall covered by crumpled rock-n-roll inspired newsprint and a few strings of lights. The varied lighting by David Larose is very strong for the black box space, and the costumes by Becky Rosefelt are detailed and period-appropriate.
Spring Awakening's stirring and pulsating rock score expresses the emotions of these 19th century characters in a manner that mirrors the modern day adolescent angst of the show's primary audience. As a result, it's sure to connect with the many college students in attendance. With a skilled cast and some original directorial ideas, this unusual little musical with a slight identity crisis overcomes its weaknesses and is certainly worth seeing, if you can find an available ticket!
Spring Awakening plays at CCM from February 2 4, 2012.