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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spring Awakening
Mesa Community College
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Gil's review of Actually


Carson Robles, Nick Williams, and Samantha Maxwell
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
With an age-appropriate cast of young adults, Mesa Community College PAC Musical Productions is presenting a solid production of the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, which focuses on a group of high school students in 1890s Germany. Adapted from Frank Wedekind's 1891 German play of the same name, this rock musical centers on issues that young adults still struggle with today, including teen suicide and sexual awakening.

The plot follows three close teenage friends who are dealing with moments of awakening and sexual discovery while they lead sheltered lives in a sexually oppressive time when there is very little information or guidance from the adults around them. Melchior and Moritz are best friends who both begin to question many things in life. Wendla is a young teenage girl whose mother shelters her and completely misinforms her. For example, when Wendla asks her where babies come from, her mother tells her that in order for a woman to have a child she must love her husband with her whole heart. With budding sexuality and hormones raging, a steady stream of misinformation meant to protect their young minds sends this trio, along with several of their schoolmates, into moments of self-discovery, doubt, fear and pain as they attempt to find the truth in their lives and their place in the world.

This is a show that deals with rape, suicide, homosexuality, child abuse and abortion, so it is a very serious musical, though there are moments of humor and levity sprinkled throughout. You can see with all of those very adult issues present why the original play was banned in Germany when it premiered. Composer Duncan Sheik and bookwriter and lyricist Steven Sater won Tony Awards for their contributions and they don't shy away from the topics that Wedekind wrote about over 100 years ago. By having the characters deliver their inner thoughts and hidden desires in the form of modern pop/rock songs, Sheik and Sater formed the perfect theatrical device to make a show set in 1890s Germany feel contemporary. So, while the dialogue scenes are set in the past, the songs are firmly set in the present, which provides a thrilling theatrical way to connect the present with the past and to show how these topics are still relevant with young adults today.

Director Darl Jones and choreographer Ashley Harkey do a fairly good job in keeping the energy alive in the musical sections while ensuring the dramatic moments are taut and intense and resonate with the power of the situations. Jones also derives nuanced, rich and layered performances from his young cast. He does make a major change from previous productions of this show I've seen, including the original Broadway production, that doesn't fully work. He doesn't set the show specifically in late 19th century Germany, instead using a combination of period and modern designs in the costumes, props and set, which gives the setting a more timeless or current feeling of either a slightly distant past or a future yet to be. But that misses some of the strength of the original idea the creators came up with, since having the show clearly set in the past with the songs in a more current musical style specifically ties the issues of the past with the present.

Harkey's choreography is energetic and infused with stylistic steps and gestures, somewhat similar in nature to the original Broadway choreography yet also original, all coming across as natural outbursts of the emotions and expressions of the characters. Amanda Embry's three-story set design is large and impressive, using several platforms and staircases and chain-link fencing to create, in an abstract way, the many locations in the show. Aurelie Flores's costumes, Melody Stuart's makeup designs, and Kristen Peterson's lighting are all impressive and the sound design by Tyler Forée provides reasonably crisp and clear dialogue and lyrics throughout, through some of the vocals were a little quiet or soft at the opening night performance. Music director Jenn Crandall achieves gorgeous vocals and lush harmonies from the cast and a vibrant and rich sound from the members of the small band, who are visible throughout the show, most of them situated on the second level of Embry's set.

MCC PAC's cast do a very good job portraying these identifiable characters. Nick Williams is excellent as Melchior, instilling the character with an inquisitive nature, an abundance of charm, and a clear sense of yearning. As Wendla, Samantha Maxwell shows innocence and naivety, which allows the audience to have an emotional connection to her as she struggles with the issues and truths Wendla encounters. Carson Robles exhibits an abundance of anxiety, nervousness and uncertainty as Moritz, with an expressive line delivery and body language that includes constant fidgeting and restlessness that beautifully depicts the intense pressure the character faces in his struggle to succeed. All three main characters deal with moments of heartbreak and, through Williams, Maxwell and Robles' rich, natural and personable performances, it's natural to feel for these characters. All three actors also have strong singing voices that present beautiful versions of the show's many soaring ballads, soft pop love songs, and hard, rocking expressive tunes.

In the supporting cast, Suzy Olson delivers a beautiful performance as Ilse, the young woman who ran away from the community because she was being abused. Her duet with Samantha Ryan, "The Dark I Know Well," is especially striking. Aidan Vincent, Payten McLeod, Cody Johnston, Jack Walton and Nicholas Magel play Moritz and Melchior's schoolmates and each get several moments to show off their acting abilities. Vincent does especially well as the mischievous, arrogant and predatory Hänschen. Alexa Stuart, Allyson Harding, and Olivia Woodward-Shaw round out the cast and they provide some gorgeous vocals and harmonies throughout.

The other theatrical device the musical uses, besides having the songs all have a modern sound, is to have only two actors play all of the adult parts in the show. In doing so it gives the impression that all of the adult characters in these young adults' world are the same, even though some are slightly more honest and in tune with the needs of the teenage characters. TaNayiah Bryels and Jere Van Patten play the Adult Women and Adult Men, respectively, and both are exceptional, effectively making each of the many characters they play unique with different accents and gestures.

With a cast who instill their portrayals and songs with a fierce passion and a forceful clarity, Mesa Community College PAC Productions' Spring Awakening is a fairly moving and impactful production of this powerful and meaningful musical about the loss of innocence. It's a show that tackles many issues that are still relevant today and while it deals with some heavy topics it also finds a way to bring moments of optimism and hope, including an uplifting ending, within the unhappiness and despair.

Spring Awakening runs through September 21st, 2019 at the Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center, 1520 S Longmore, Mesa AZ. Tickets and information for this show and for upcoming productions can be ordered at 480 461 7172 or at www.mesacc.edu/arts/events

Producer: Sue Anne Lucius
Director: Darl Jones
Music Director: Jenn Crandall
Choreographer: Ashley Harkey
Scenic Design: Amanda Embry
Lighting Design: Kristen Peterson
Costume Design: Aurelie Flores
Sound Design: Tyler Forée
Makeup Design: Melody Stuart Cast:
Melchior Gabor: Nick Williams
Wendla Bergmann: Samantha Maxwell
Moritz Stiefel: Carson Robles
Martha Bessell: Samantha Ryan
Ilse Neumann: Suzy Olson
Hänschen Rilow: Aidan Vincent
Ernst: Payten McLeod
Georg: Cody Johnston
Otto: Jack Walton
Anna: Alexa Stuart
Thea: Allyson Harding
Bobby Maler:Nicholas Magel
Marianna Whelan: Olivia Woodward-Shaw
Adult Female: TaNayiah Bryels
Adult Male: Jere Van Patten


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