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‘Spring Awakening’ warms up dull winter

By |2018-01-16T11:02:38-05:00October 31st, 2017|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

The creative minds in musical theater have drawn inspiration from many odd sources. But in a realm of Demon Barbers and Jellicle Cats, “Spring Awakening” is one of the oddest. German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play by the same name was a rage against the machine. Working in the broad context of teenagers discovering their sexuality in a sea of ignorance, Wedekind crafted an Expressionist exploration of rape and abortion; homosexuality; child abuse; and, ultimately, suicide. It was too controversial for the prevailing mores and was for a time banned.
Enter playwright Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik. Their reimagined “Spring Awakening” won eight Tony Awards in 2007. It also launched the careers of “Glee” favorites Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, who originated the pivotal roles of Wendla and Melchoir.
The plots and sub-plots are convoluted and interwoven, but all stem from the fact that a thinking man is a stultified society’s worst enemy. The thinker in question is young Melchoir Gabor (Jeff Bobick); what he isn’t learning from his narrow-minded schooling, he’s finding out for himself. His rather nerdy classmate Moritz (Alan Neuwirth) confides in Melchoir that he’s been having impure dreams. Melchoir assures him that that’s what adolescent boys are all about and puts the facts of life in writing – complete with illustrations. When things in town go wrong – and they go horribly wrong – Melchoir’s paper trail is evidence enough for Authority to name him as the scapegoat.
If the book for “Spring Awakening” follows its original author’s intent closely, Wedekind’s most damning accusation is leveled at parents and teachers unwilling to hold frank discussions with their children concerning sex. The consequences for Wendla Bergmann (Kryssy Becker) are devastating. Her mother’s assurance that conceiving a child involves loving her husband with all her heart is no substitute for a mother-daughter understanding of the consequences of unprotected sexual activity. There is also a recurring theme of parents throwing “defective” children out of the house as if one is trashing an old shoe. This musical is grim, graphic and often vulgar. Yet, hard to believe, it holds out the poignant hope that there is redemption in the future.
For this show What’s That Smell? Productions has left the cozy confines of the walk-in closet they call The Box Theater for a stroll down Walnut Street to the spacious – some would say cavernous – Emerald Theatre. Having had the pleasure of reviewing the company’s production of “bare,” another large musical about teenage angst, I was startled by the similarities between that and “Spring Awakening.” Both musicals have achieved a startling intimacy: “bare,” performed at the Box, effectively employed the space to the maximum, with actors literally working the aisles; “Awakening” allows the same focus in a larger playing area through thoughtful direction and creative design.
Under the direction of Rodel Salazar, a very young, enthusiastic cast tackles some very edgy material. The principals are strong, engaging and in great voice, suitably ranging high soprano and tenor. If there is a standout among them, it’s Lauren Fuller as Isle, a waif who has been cast out of her home who has found refuge in an artist colony. Her rendition of “Blue Wind” is utterly captivating. Also of note is the lush, full sound musical director Eleonore Ellro-Groth coaxes out of the band.
I’m not in the habit of leaving the theater humming the tech, but a serendipitous blend between disciplines is notable here. Gannon Styles and Mandy Logsdon have taken advantage of the Emerald’s soaring “fly space” above the stage to create a unique lighting design, more reminiscent of rock concert than rock opera. Heavy use of backlighting in saturated colors seems to pop the performers off the stage and into our laps. For this production, sound designer John Forlini has brought in a new amplification system to deal with the venue’s multitude of reverberant surfaces. While there’s an echo, it doesn’t interfere with sound quality; every word and note rings loud and clear. Put lights and sound together and who needs 3D TV?
So, how does one sum up “Spring Awakening?” I’m getting off easy this time, since director Salazar says it better than I can: “The story may come from 1891, but this show is 100 percent today. The music, the subject matter, the language … it all reflects today’s world.”
And so it does. We need to do better.

‘Spring Awakening’
The Box Theater at The Emerald Theatre, 51 N. Walnut St., Mount Clemens. Feb. 12, 16-Feb. 17. $25. 586-954-2311.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.