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‘Spring Awakening' an Impressive Departure for Marriott Theatre

17-Jan-2016
Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-TImes

Highly recommended!

With its ravishing singing and orchestral accompaniment, its vivid acting, and its stark, stunningly modern design, the Marriott Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” is transfixing on every level.

In addition, the production — notable for its explicit look at themes of sex and death, the poetry and rebellion of the adolescent soul, and the hypocrisy of adults — unquestionably lies well outside the usual middle-of-the-road musical programming the Marriott has been doing for nearly four decades. In fact, this three-week “experimental” engagement – outside the company’s standard subscription lineup — might just signal a formidable “spring awakening” of its own.

True, director-choreographer Aaron Thielen’s impressive rendering of the show arrives fully buffered by the recent feel-good “Elf,” with “Sister Act” as a “redemptive” followup. But he has taken a bold step, and one bound to leave audiences caught up in the seductive strains of Duncan Sheik’s gorgeous, rock-driven score, and the often startling book and lyrics by Steven Sater based on the 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind.

Of course the true magic of this show, which debuted on Broadway in 2006, is the ingenious ways in which it establishes a perfect anachronistic synchrony, with its late 19th century world view directly juxtaposed against a folk-infused rock score that at times finds the actors grabbing hold of microphones. And while the schoolboys in their proper uniforms reluctantly march to their desks in the rigidly disciplined mode of a time long gone, they also can just as easily burst forth with songs titled “The Bitch of Living” and “Totaly F—–.”

The story told here is a timeless one: A tale of teenagers fumbling their way from innocence to experience while trying to come to terms with the complexities of lust and first love, and all the attendant pain, fear, shame and guilt generated by a society that sends endlessly mixed messages. This is a show that asks: What is “moral,” and what is just profoundly human about the hunger of the heart, the need for touch and connection, and the importance of knowledge and freedom? Explicit sexual situations, suicide or abortion are not excluded. How could they be?

It all begins ash Wendla (the lushly pretty Eliza Palasz, who beautifully captures the tragic naivete, warped loss of innocence and sensuality of her character), begs her mother to reveal the facts of life. She gets no help. And meanwhile, she finds herself deeply attracted to the handsome, rebellious, deeply intelligent Melchior Gabor (Patrick Rooney, whose boyish movie star sexiness is paired with a brainy intensity), a student at the neighboring boys’ school.

The son of a rather progressive mother (who, when push comes to shove, still aligns with her husband), Melchior is a true humanist. And he tries desperately to help his distracted and disheveled schoolmate, Moritz (the properly addled and anguished Ben Barker), who, like Wendla, has all the urges but none of the facts he needs about sex. Of course ignorance wreaks havoc, not bliss, and he is unable to act on the advances of Ilse (the golden-voiced Betsy Stewart), the girl whose rough life and promiscuity still leave her open to a more innocent attachment.

Forming the circle of friends of these principal teenage characters are Adhana Cemone Reid, Tiffany Tatreau, Elizabeth Stenholt, Nate Lewellyn, Brian Bohr, Nick Graffagna and Liam Quealy, whose voices blend to create a sound of intense emotion and beauty. And playing all the differently tuned adult women is the redoubtable Hollis Resnik, with the patriarchal figures expertly limned by Kevin Gudahl. Kudos to Ryan T. Nelson’s flawless musical direction, and to the exceptional orchestra led by Patti Garwood which has been liberated from its usual “glass box” and perched on the side of the stage.

Thielen’s fluid, out-of-the-box direction (with choreography more reminiscent of Steven Hoggett’s work for “Once” than Bill T. Jones’ moves for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”) uses the Marriott stage in a whole new way. And he is immeasurably helped by Thomas M. Ryan’s spare, subtly prison-like steel pipe set, Lee Fiskness’ stunning lighting, Anthony Churchill’s gorgeous projections (with images suggestive of such German Expressionist artists as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt), and the period-perfect costumes by Susan Hilferty and Nancy Missimi.

A true spring awakening in the dead of winter.

NOTE: What about age appropriateness? Most teens will get this show — each according to his or her own level of readiness for scenes of explicit sexuality, suicide and abortion — though it’s a good bet they’d prefer seeing it with their friends rather than their parents. Adults, too, might prefer to see it with their peers.

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