Kensington Arts Theatre Spring AwakeningBy Bob Ashby • Feb 25th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Kensington Arts Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Kensington Town Center, Kensington, MD
Through March 15th
2:20 with intermission
$23/$20 Seniors/$17 Students, Children/$15 Kensington residents
Reviewed February 22nd, 2014
Teenage youth: soulful, loving, open-hearted, emotionally confused, intellectually curious, sexually blossoming, honest, full of hope and energy, victimized. Adults: tyrannical, abusive, clueless, hypocritical, closed-minded, punitive, hard-hearted, caring more about their image in the community than their children’s lives. Such is the Manichaean world of Spring Awakening, a multiple Tony Award winner in its initial 2006 Broadway run, adapted by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik from an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind (also famous for the Lulu plays, on which Alban Berg’s great opera was based). The musical is currently playing at the Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT).
The show’s lead character, Melchior (Ryan Alan Jones), is an intellectually precocious fellow who sees clearly through the hypocrisy of the adults he knows, religion, and his society in general. The script makes him conversant with Goethe, and, as Jacob Kresloff’s excellent dramaturg’s note points out, he is likely familiar with Nietzsche (I’d bet on his having read some of Marx as well). But of course what preoccupies him, and all his male friends, is sex. Having researched the subject thoroughly in the library, Melchior has book knowledge of male and female anatomy and how they interact, which he helpfully writes up in a paper for his sexually uninformed friend, Moritz (Harrison Smith). Not surprisingly, Melchior wants to put his hard-won knowledge to use, focusing his attention on the extremely innocent Wendla (Emily Dey), who does not know where babies come from. (Wendla’s opening song, “Momma Who Bore Me,” concerns her unsuccessful attempt to elicit this information from her mother.)
Jones captures the self-absorbed but also honest, passionate, and idealistic nature of his character. He often sits on the stage, writing in his journal as he works out his thoughts and desires. Alone of his classmates, he defends the insecure Moritz from the bullying of his teachers. Desiring Wendla, and aggressively going after what he wants, he also is able to behave lovingly toward her. Save for an occasional quaver in his head voice, Jones sings his role creditably, notably in his ballad with Wendla, “The Word of Your Body,” the uptempo “Totally Fucked,” and the elegiac “Left Behind,” the last staged in a way reminiscent of the informal memorials left by students after a classmate has been shot or killed by a drunk driver. By show’s end, Melchior has determined to move forward with his life, carrying with him the memories of his friends, but he remains a rebel without an effect.
Smith’s Moritz, bullied by his teachers and his father, less attractive than the other boys, is a marginal student troubled by sexual dreams he does not understand. Moritz is consistently overwrought, a quality portrayed by Smith in his acting and singing (for example, in “The Bitch of Living” and “And Then There Were None”) without chewing scenery. Self-dramatization is a notable part of his character, which he carries to a tragic extreme, pushing away the attempts of Ilse (Joanna Frezzo) to help him. His depressed certainty in his conversation with Ilse was sadly chilling. This scene was marred by an imbalance in amplification that left Ilse’s lyrics in the duet “Don’t Do Sad/Blue Wind” largely inaudible.
Frezzo and Catherine Callahan (Martha) have the most powerful song in the show, “The Dark I Know Well,” expressing as well as anything I have heard the feelings of girls subject to sexual abuse, in both cases by the characters’ fathers. The emotional deadening of the girls as they “lie there and breathe” is vividly portrayed in the writing of the song and the actors’ performance.
Wendla is the purest victim in the show, abused by her controlling mother’s overriding sense of shame about sex, as well as by her own sexual ignorance and Melchior’s carelessness about the consequences of his actions. Wendla’s musical material is mostly of the wistful ballad variety (“The Word of Your Body,” “Whispering”), and the clear-voiced Dey sings it in a way credible for this unformed girl who is more the subject of actions by others than someone able to even begin taking charge of her own life.
In happy contrast, Hanschen (David Tuttle) and Ernst (Riley Lopez) are able to acknowledge their attraction and act to become a couple. Their reprise of “The Word of Your Body” is the single sweetest moment in the show. One of the less heralded aspects of adolescence is the tenderness that boys (and not only those who are gay) can sometimes show to one another, and Lopez and Tuttle portray this beautifully.
One actor (Chris Gillespie) plays all the adult male roles and another (Marni Ratner Whelan) plays all the adult female roles. Gillespie specializes in the young people’s overbearing fathers and teachers, with briefer scenes as a self-righteous preacher and a back-alley abortionist. Whelan’s portfolio includes the sexually repressed and ineffectually understanding mothers, respectively, of Wendla and Melchiorp; another repressive teacher; and a randy piano instructor. As teachers gleefully planning Moritz’s academic demise, they resemble nothing so much as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett enthusing over the protein source for their next meat pie. Both differentiate their multiple roles effectively, but the overall point of having one actor play all the adult male or female roles is inescapable: adults are essentially all the same, pernicious cogs in what Melchior calls the “parentocracy.” As the 1960s slogan had it, “never trust anyone over 30.” (Wedekind was 27 when he wrote the original play.)
There is a striking dissonance between the late 19th century German setting of the play and characters — lucidly explained in Kresloff’s essay — and Sheik’s contemporary pop/rock score. While a subset of late romantic era adolescents might well have experienced the sturm und drang suffered by the story’s characters, it is extraordinarily unlikely that would have expressed themselves in — or even understood — anything like either the musical idiom or lyrics given to them by Slater and Sheik. Their sensibility would probably have been far closer to Tchaikovsky than “Totally Fucked.” The show’s underlying assumption seems to be that there is a universal experience of adolescence that finds its natural expression in today’s musical styles.
The dubious nature of this assumption does not, however, impair the quality of many of the numbers, which the actors and music director Valerie A. Higgs’ band perform with energy and sensitivity. The staging of many of the numbers — which mostly are not plot or character songs of the sort found in many musicals — is intentionally straight out to the audience, culminating in a straight line across the stage in the second act finale. Director/choreographer Emily Zickler does a particularly good job of constructing the lively movement in ensemble numbers like “Totally Fucked,” “The Bitch of Living,” and “My Junk.”
The highlight of KAT’s physical production is Ben Levine’s lighting, which is very detailed and specific, though sparing in its use of color. There is a particularly nice effect in the second act graveyard scene during which there is strong illumination of the gravesites on stage right and stage left while the central playing area, where Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla meet, is left in relative darkness. Eleanor Dicks’ costumes were period-appropriate, mostly in subdued colors.
The main features of Anna Britton’s set design are two L-shaped, translucent flat units, which actors move about the stage to suggest various scenes. The flexibility of this concept minimizes set change delays. Upstage, on fabric-covered platforms, stand a number of wintry, bare-limbed trees. This being a show with “spring” in the title, it was curious that the trees never leafed out, even during the second act finale, “The Song of Purple Summer.” Was this a matter of insufficient technical resources, or was it an artistic choice symbolizing that, in the Teutonic gloom of the story, springtime never arrives for Melchior’s generation?
In the spring of 2007, I picked up a weekend bag, hopped on a bus, and went up to New York to see Spring Awakening on Broadway. This was an exciting time for me: I was enjoying newfound independence, feeling less like a child and more like an adult, and yet I was still very aware that I was in some grey area between the two. The curtain rose on this new rock-musical and suddenly I felt something that I had never felt before in a theatre: understood.
What makes this script so very special is how it honestly portrays the life of an adolescent in turmoil. Franz Wedekind’s play, Spring’s Awakening: Tragedy of Childhood, from which this musical is derived, is a sort of parable. It brought the subjects of adolescent depression, sexual maturity, and abuse into focus with such clarity, that the text was banned in Germany for a period of time. Our modern societal norms and pressures are quite different from that of late 19th century Germany, and yet somehow the stigma surrounding these issues still exists today.
I propose that those questions of morality that Wedekind asked of his original audience in 1890 are still relevant in a modern context. Moreover, I believe that these questions are given new life by Sater’s script and Sheik’s music. The societal pressures put on adolescents in this modern world are as real as ever, but unfortunately, are rarely faced directly.
My hope is that seeing these quandaries confronted head-on on the stage may help to shed light on the seriousness of these issues and maybe, in some cases, provide a cathartic release similar to what I felt in New York back in 2007.
This project has been a labor of love: So, with an open heart, I invite you to join us, the Spring Awakening cast and crew, on our journey towards awareness and understanding.
Photos by Ernie Achenbach
- Wendla: Emily Dey
- The Adult Women: Marni Ratner Whelan
- Martha: Catherine Callahan
- Ilse: Joanna Frezzo
- Anna: Ashley Zielinski
- Thea: Elizabeth Gillespie
- The Adult Men: Chris Gillespie
- Otto: Bobby Libby
- Hanschen: David Tuttle
- Ernst: Riley Lopez
- Georg: Michael Van Maele
- Moritz: Harrison Smith
- Melchior: Ryan Alan Jones
- Conductor/Keyboards: Valerie A. Higgs
- Violin: Sarah Morrison
- Viola: Meagan Frame
- Cello: Joe Ichniowski
- Bass: Tony Aragon
- Guitar: Rick Peralta
- Percussion: Kevin Uleck
- Producer: Kevin Garrett
- Director: Emily Zickler
- Music Director: Valerie A. Higgs
- Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Katherine Offutt
- Assistant Stage Manager: Jess Walker
- Choreographer/Fight Choreographer: Emily Zickler
- Dance Captain: Elizabeth Gillespie
- Scenic Design/Set Painting Design: Anna Britton
- Master Carpenter: Joel Richon
- Assistant Master Carpenter: Mike Ricci
- Properties: Lois Britton
- Lighting Design: Ben Levine
- Light Crew: Katherine Offutt, Kevin Garrett, Dylan Stieber, Maria O’Connor
- Sound Design: Kevin Garrett
- Sound Crew: Jamie Coupar
- Costume Design: Eleanor Dicks
- Hair/Makeup Design: Eleanor Dicks
- Dramaturg: Jacob Kresloff
- Board Operators: Katherine Offutt, Kevin Garrett, Dylan Stieber
- Construction/Painting Crew: Joel Richon, Mike Ricci, Matt Karner, Ed Eggleston, Anna Britton, Lois Britton, Brian Campbell, Kevin Garrett
- Stage Crew: Jess Walker, DJ McGowan
- Program Cover/Logo Design: Ernie Achenbach
- Program Design/House Manager: Doe B. Kim
Disclaimer: Kensington Arts Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10162.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.