Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Rick's review of As You Like It
Despite having two wonderful Equity theater companies and a Broadway touring season featuring New York's biggest hits, the best deal in town for musicals remains those presented by the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). With four or five musical theatre offerings annually, often featuring performers who will soon be on Broadway, CCM continually provides audiences with excellent shows. Their current production, Spring Awakening, is no exception. 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.
Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the controversial 1891 German play of the same title by Frank Wedekind, and won the 2007 Tony Award for Best New Musical. The show follows a group of teenagers during late-1800s Germany trying to deal with their budding and confusing sexuality in a society that represses any discussion of 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 and without sufficient guidance 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 the musical version is 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 music is stylistically modern-day alternative rock or acoustic-based ballads, 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's just enough humor to balance out the 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. There are false rhymes and displaced accents, and they lack the level of craft usually associated with musical theatre standards. Song highlights from the 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 great fit for CCM in that most of the roles are that of teens not too much younger than these actors. Declan Smith is just a freshman (all the other lead and supporting actors are juniors or seniors), but provides praiseworthy vocals and stage presence as Melchior. He emphasizes the inquisitive and introspective aspects of the character to great effect. Grace Marie Rusnica (Wendla) conveys the innocence and longing of the naïve teen just wishing to know how the world works, and is vocally stunning. As Moritz, August Bagg skillfully embodies the conflicted nature of a boy trying to understand his changing body and mind in a world unwilling to let him do so, and doesn't go over the top in his portrayal as is sometimes seen with this role.
The 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. Julia Schick (Martha) and Sarah Jane Nelson (Ilse) show off great soulful voices in "The Dark I Know Well," and Garrett Van Allen and Delaney Benson provide nicely nuanced portrayals of the many adult characters, helping to distinguish each from the another.
Director Hannah Ryan provides an apt tone and has shaped multi-dimensional performances from her cast. There are a few similarities to the original Broadway staging (the handheld microphones are still used), but there is a lot of originality as well. The ensemble is used very effectively throughout, and there are several unexpected moments in the blocking. For this production, the black box space is configured as a thrust stage with seating on three sides, and an aisle part-way into the audience seating is also used effectively. The choreography by Jess Zylstra 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. Julie Spangler leads a skilled eight-piece orchestra.
The handsome set design by Charlie Calvert features multiple stair-stepped levels of pale wood flooring surrounded by eight similarly styled panels featuring artistic renderings of grass and reeds. The varied lighting by Kristen Peck includes the illumination of those wooden panels in different colors to convey the different tones of the piece and to vary the setting. The costumes by Meredith Buckley are attractive and appropriate to the setting of the story.
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 the age group of the largely collegiate audience and performers. The skilled cast and some original directorial, choreography, and design ideas make this unique musical one every theater fan should see at CCM, if you can find an available ticket.
Spring Awakening runs through April 16, 2023, at CCM, Cohen Family Studio Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati, OH 45221. For tickets and information, call (513) 556-4183 or visit https://ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/?cid=168.