By John Quinn
The second act of “Spring Awakening” opens with a quote found in Martin Luther’s “The Large Catechism.” “To God, to parents, and to teachers we can never render sufficient gratitude and compensation.” It stands in stark antithesis to the theme of the hit Broadway musical, now in production by The AKT Theatre Project in Wyandotte. Here we find naive teens on the cusp of adulthood whose church, home and school have failed to provide direction. What gratitude can children offer?
German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play by the same name was a provocative poke in the eye of social convention. It is explicit, graphic and profane. Taking for his plot youth left to their own devices as they explore their blossoming sexuality, 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.
The musical “Spring Awakening” is no less provocative, but less shocking than its source – due to a coarsening of the common culture over the last century. With book and lyrics by Stephen Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the musical won eight Tony Awards in 2007.
Young Melchoir Gabor (Jack Hundley) is the golden boy in his small German town, pride of his family and school. His problem? He’s a thinker. In the repressed social conditions of turn of the century Europe, thinkers can be troublesome. When Melchoir’s lesser-achieving friend Moritz (Peter Giessl) confides that his increasingly erotic dreams are a distraction, Melchoir lays out the facts of life. Unfortunately for all concerned, he lays them out in a ten-page manual, “with illustrations.” When things go wrong, the manuscript is evidence enough to make Melchoir the scapegoat.
Melchoir’s influence is not limited to Moritz. His budding romance with Wendla Bergman (Lisa Youngs) leads to sexual experimentation which leads to an unplanned pregnancy which leads to tragedy. That’s entertainment!
Actually, it IS entertainment. The alternative rock score is infectious, ranging from a gentle folk tradition to some head-bangin’ punk. The stage is bathed in Harley Miah’s clean lighting design, which combines traditional incandescents, follow spots and newer LED instruments to achieve a rock concert ambiance while still putting the actors in the best light.
This staging of “Spring Awakening” is unique. The performance space in the Wyandotte Arts Center resembles a church without pews. In this instance, the audience lines the two long walls with an open field between them, a format known as “tennis court” staging. There are three separate stages, one at each end and one in the center. There is a liberating flow to the blocking; there’s enough space for the energetic cast to, literally, run wild. As both director and choreographer, Angie Kane Ferrante makes remarkable use of space, literally putting singers and dancers in your face.
This very young cast brings a great deal of maturity to their roles. What is noticeable, though, are different levels of experience with microphones. There are singers who rely on the mike instead of projecting; there are singers who are holding hand mikes too far away. One performer who is guilty of neither flaw is Peter Giessl, whose portrayal of Moritz is as sharp as a knife and clear as a bell. In the pivotal role of Melchoir, Jack Hundley comes equipped with a lyric upper register which, unfortunately, this score doesn’t let him demonstrate nearly often enough.
If “Spring Awakening” is a cautionary tale, reminding us that ignorance is dangerous, it also holds out hope that one can stand up to tragedy and emerge battered, but not beaten. Luther commented further, “In addition, it would be well to preach to the parents also, and such as bear their office, as to how they should deport themselves toward those who are committed to them for their government.” We know our responsibilities, are we dedicated enough to fulfill them?
The AKT Theatre Project at The Wyandotte Arts Center, 81 Chestnut Road, Wyandotte. Friday-Saturday through April 28, plus Sunday, April 22. 128 minutes. $15. 734-258-8370. http://www.AKTtheatre.com