In Short: Gloucester Stage’s new production of Spring Awakening is an engaging and moving night of theater, filled with note-worthy performances from it’s young cast. Not to be confused with a Musical Comedy, this “play with songs” explores the difficulties of young adulthood from the point of view of a group of students in Germany in the late 1800s. The well-written score is thoroughly modern and highlights the vocal talents of the cast and orchestra, but by the end, the story veers towards melodrama and the production defies expectation in comparison to most summer offerings.
Inspiration in cooking often takes the form of combining two disparate elements to create something surprising. Think of the first time you heard about cold sesame noodles at a Sichuan restaurant. Cold pasta and peanut butter? Sounds bizarre but once experienced, it often becomes an irreplaceable favorite.
I had the same sort of confusion when I heard about “Spring Awakening,” a play based on a rarely produced 1891 drama about the sexual and emotional transformation of young adults. Stranger still it was a musical, with music by pop-folk-rock artist Duncan Sheik.
But like my first bite of sesame noodles, the brilliance of this mash up became clear once I settled into this new production, being performed at the Gloucester Stage. The young cast does an extremely good job with the dramatic as well as the musical aspects of this show, with plenty of standout performances. The music is moving and original and the evening never drags, but the themes of sexuality, the hypocrisy of adult society and adolescent angst aren’t the usual fair for a summer production and audiences should be warned they are more likely to leave at the end shaken and silent rather then whistling the closing number.
The show takes place in a small town in Germany, prior to 1900. The main characters are all young adults, just beginning to feel the hormonal shifts and social pressures of growing up. The set, by Jenna McFarland Lord is more suggestive of the show’s themes than it’s scene: the well-constructed bridge mirrors the passage of the characters from childhood to adulthood. The costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley work nicely to place us firmly in strict Calvinist Germany. The boys and girls of the cast are quite literally ‘buttoned up’ inside their high-necked dresses, vests and knickers.
From the opening number, sung solo by a confident and clear-voiced Melody Madarasz, the cast displays exceptional musical proficiency; in fact the songs and choreography are the most successful parts of the show. Who better to express their feelings in song than teens, who so often feel overwhelmed by their feelings? The music is quite modern (the orchestra includes guitar, bass, as well as cello and violin) and the language quite raw, even by today’s standards (the program instructs us that “when singing, the boys and girls assume the manner of contemporary teens”). The orchestra, under the direction of Catherine Stornetta do an excellent job supporting and blending with the voices on stage.
With the relatively small cast of six boys and five girls, we get a chance to see almost everyone in the cast take a turn center stage. Ms. Madarasz as Wendla and Phil Tayler as Melchior, two youths who eventually begin a romance, are both fine singers and do well with some difficult and sensitive material, although the script lacks some of the depth that might help the actors bring the characters to life. Ross Mumford as Moritz, the third ‘lead’ has been directed to adopt a set of mannerisms and a distinctively nasal voice, which seemed slightly out of place in relationship with the naturalness of the rest of the characters on stage. To his credit Mr. Mumford picked a set of physical tics and stuck with them, but I only really enjoyed him in the second act when he was able to sing and move with the style and grace that are clearly his own.
Other stand out performers in the cast include Jordan Ford, Chris Renalds, and Meghan LaFlam although by the second act each member of the cast, including Sarah Oakes Muirhead, Andrew Oberstein, Mary Nepi and Daniel Scott Walton had an opportunity to shine. The high points of the show were certainly the moments when this cast of talented and practiced singers join their voices in striking harmonies. It seemed a wonderful touch by the creators that the harmonies of the music are used to express the isolation and alienation of the characters.
Veteran actors Amelia Broome and Paul Farwell have the thankless task of playing all the adult roles: school teachers, administrators and parents. Both did well although the script once again leaves little room for depth or subtlety. At times I felt the roles were little more than the ‘talking’ trombones from the Charlie Brown specials.
With all this discussion of the seriousness of the content, please don’t think the production lacks energy or moments of exhilaration. There are a couple of beautiful duets on the theme of love and several rock and roll anthem-style chorus numbers. The “10 O’Clock Number,” positioned squarely in the center of the second act, lets the cast let loose with a song whose title is too obscene for most publications. It could easily be a rival to The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland.” Coupled with inventive choreography it’s a number that might lift you right out of your seat.
This is a moving theatrical experience brought together by Director Eric C. Engel, and if you’re prepared for a show that touches on serious and sad themes, you will find this production memorable and worthy of your time.
“Spring Awakening” By Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
based on a play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Eric C. Engel
Musical Direction by Catherine Stornetta
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company
Now through July 14
For tickets visit www.gloucesterstage.com