First let me say that I’ve never quite understood the excitement surrounding “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical depicting abused and neglected teens in the late 19th century.
But the show packs an emotional punch, even for viewers (like yours truly) who may view it with a certain amount of skepticism.
Composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater based the show on a legendary play written in the 1890s by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Wedekind’s three-act drama depicts the psychological and physical torment endured by middle-class teens in a repressive German society that demands conformity. Its frank depiction of previously forbidden subject matter — homosexuality, abortion, child abuse — got the work banned in many places.
Sheik and Sater retained the German fin de siècle setting but gave it a contemporary rock sensibility. Much of the music is affecting, but the intentional incongruities and anachronisms give the show a weird, out-of-time sensibility.
Jeff Church, artistic director of the Coterie Theatre, has chosen to open the young-audience theater’s season with “Spring Awakening,” and he brings together some exceptionally talented performers in a small-scale production that bears few similarities to the Broadway and touring versions of the show.
There are times when this production feels just a little too bare-bones, but the show achieves extraordinary intimacy. That’s often true of Coterie shows, but the subject matter makes this one seem particularly up close and personal.
The narrative presents a group of boys and a corresponding set of girls who are struggling in different ways with smothering social strictures. Wendla (Caroline Elizabeth Drage) asks her mother to explain where babies come from; the information-free “explanation” is so inadequate that Wendla pays a steep price after she falls in love with Melchior (Will Amato), a bright young student who has rejected God and questions authority.
Other key characters include Moritz (Noah Whitmore), Melchior’s friend who fears flunking out of school; Hanschen (Shea Coffman) and Ernst (Tyler Eisenreich), students who become lovers; and Ilse (Shelby Floyd), Moritz’s childhood friend who takes multiple artists as lovers.
The show has a deep bench because the ensemble includes formidable talents. Steven Eubank is on board, along with Emily Shackelford, Daria LeGrand and a few performers I’d never seen before. One of them, Kristen May Altoro, reveals a stunning voice as the abused Martha.
Indeed, the women in this show are fine singers across the board. The men are a bit of a mixed bag, with some actors struggling for quality control as they perform a score that doesn’t sound easy.
Hughston Walkinshaw and Shelley Wyche perform all the adult roles, and although they are capable performers, there’s a blurred sameness to their work. Walkinshaw’s parts tend to be actively malevolent, while Wyche demonstrates a bit more range as she shifts from weak-minded mothers to scheming academicians.
Coffman not only performs in the show but also receives credit for the simple but effective scenic design and some of the video projections that are incorporated into the action. The musical staging from co-choreographers David Ollington and Tiffany Powell is remarkably fluid, considering the relatively small stage. Georgianna Buchanan’s costumes serve the production well, and much of the shifting atmosphere is the work of lighting designer Art Kent.
At first glance, the show’s argument for contemporary relevance is unconvincing. After all, young people today experience a degree of freedom that Wedekind could not have imagined. On the other hand, when you consider some of the initiatives being pushed by certain members of our political class, it’s easy to conclude that some people wouldn’t mind dragging us back to 19th-century social standards. We could easily view the show as a warning,
The Coterie is linking the production to the 20th anniversary of its Dramatic Health Education Project, which has delivered potentially life-saving information to students across the metro area. Originally called the Dramatic AIDS Education Project, the program has expanded its focus to include the full range of sexually transmitted diseases.
The production is a first for the Coterie — a full-length musical, uncut, aimed at a relatively mature audience. Nobody younger than 13 will be admitted to the show.