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Marriott Proves It’s a Home for Art

20-Jan-2016
Jacob Davis, Chicago Critic

Spring Awakening is a play that should only be done in places where it will receive pushback. I’ve seen the musical version a few times, and both times it left me cold, because it was too self-assured, too aware that it was preaching to a choir, and too confident that it was depicting a by-gone era or distant location with an air of “aren’t we glad we’re not these hicks?” The Marriott’s production is different. Not because Lincolnshire is some kind of hotbed of conservative fanaticism; they were doing La Cage aux Folles a year ago, and not for the first time. But Aaron Thielen’s production is one which knows it has to make a case for itself. The Marriott sacrificed over a hundred seats to turn its arena stage into a thrust, and is mounting the show for only three weeks outside of its subscription season during a time of year in which it normally would have been dark. At ten years old, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation is still very new by some standards. That pressure made the Marriott’s production into the best Spring Awakening I have ever seen, one that totally reversed my opinion of the show, and a must-see artistic triumph.

Frank Wedekind’s “children’s tragedy” was written in Germany in 1891, and ruthlessly assailed the consequences of keeping teenagers ignorant about their own sexuality. Sater and Sheik’s adaptation retains the time and place, but mixes it with a more modern musical style. Melchior Gabor (Patrick Rooney) is the brightest boy in his class, and coming from a relatively more liberal household, the best-informed about the changes puberty is causing in himself and his classmates. Because of that, his friend Moritz (Ben Barker), and the girl who sorta-likes him, Wendla (Eliza Palasz), trust him more than they do their negligent or hostile parents. But there’s quite a lot that Melchior’s not equipped to handle. Wendla is about to become an aunt for the second time, and still doesn’t know where babies come from. She has a friend who is being sexually abused by her own father, and another who ran off for the same reason, and wound up in an environment nearly as bad. Moritz’s anxiety over his benign fantasies is causing him panic-attacks and insomnia. This, in turn, disrupts class, and his teachers are determined to get him expelled, even if they have to violate their own rules to do so. In his poorly-thought out attempts to help, and grave misunderstandings of his own desires, Melchior makes everything far worse, resulting in several deaths. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Rooney’s Melchior is the first I’ve ever sympathized with. Other productions, taking their cue from the Broadway original, depicted him as manipulative and conceited, but Rooney plays him as a kid who’s doing his honest best in several terrible situations. In his first song, “All that’s Known,” he seems more disappointed and confused by adult injustice than like he’s already made up his mind to be a rebel. Melchior starts his philosophy journal as a form of play, grows into it over time, and his nervous body-language when acting as other kids’ therapist implies his discomfort with the amount of trust they’re placing in him. His expression during the song “Totally Fucked,” after everything’s fallen apart, is one of absolute terror, and it works so much better that way. Likewise, Palasz and Barker’s performances make Wendla and Moritz seem more like products of their culture than twenty-first century adults who have been dumped into imperial Germany. Palasz starts the show with a melodic, contemplative “Mama Who Bore Me,” and her song “Whispering,” is a complete story in itself. Barker’s Moritz, the most childlike of all, is performed without caricature; his panic in “And Then There Were None” comes off as unaffected and his “Don’t Do Sadness” is actually quite sad.

Ryan T. Nelson’s musical direction is another of this production’s great innovations. Conductor Patti Garwood’s keyboard is the only electronic instrument, and other than the drums, all the other instruments are strings. The orchestra is also located near the stage instead of behind their usual partition, and besides blending with the actors’ voices, is also on the same wavelength emotionally. Thielen’s design team took what was sensible in other productions, and made the mood lighting (Lee Fiskness), cage-like set (Thomas M. Ryan), and etching-like projections (Anthony Churchill) more subdued and authentic to the characters’ state of mind. This is another show for which the degree of abstraction required by Marriott’s stage works very well. The large number of young actors in the ensemble rotate through their songs, without anyone needing to claim a position of dominance over their peers. Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik play all of the adult roles, and while the school administrators are irredeemably villainous, the other grown-ups are more human.

The musical version of Spring Awakening has been a sensation among teenagers since it came out when I was in high school. It was an obvious choice for Marriott to expand their base, in anticipation of the day when they can no longer rely on “classic” Broadway. But I think the show, at least the way it’s done here, has the potential to appeal to Marriott’s more typical audience, as well. On my way to the lobby, I heard several older people remark that Spring Awakening’s characters reminded them of their own grandparents, who they now saw in a new light. That’s what comes from taking them seriously, instead of as ciphers for adolescent smugness. Having been introduced to the Broadway tour through a school field trip, I don’t think of Spring Awakening’s content as shocking, but I suppose it may be a show that parents and grandparents who are unfamiliar with may want to prepare themselves for, if they make it a family outing. Any suburban teenager who is interested in theatre will already know the show and be excited for this production, but for those who have never been to a musical because they associate the genre so strongly with its more dated or heavy-handed aspects, this is an excellent introduction. It comments on teenagers’ concerns (and those of their parents) intelligently, and is highly theatrical while doing so.

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