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Brilliant Staging, Flawless Casting

20-Jan-2016
Dan Zeff, Chicagoland Theatre Reviews

FOUR of FOUR STARS
“Spring Awakening” was written in 1891 but it was so controversial that it didn’t receive its premiere production until 1906. In the original version, the conflict between teenage and adult generations in a German town blended expressionistic fantasy and realism. The teenagers, their hormones pumping, are awash in curiosity and hunger over sex. They are thwarted by the adults, comprising stereotyped parents and teachers who are variously self righteous, narrow minded, authoritarian, and hypocritical. The clash leads to tragedy among the teenagers, ending with one young man committing suicide and a girl dying from a botched back street abortion.

The 1891 play, with its grotesque images and overheated language, would be unplayable today. The Wedekind script was revised and modernized for a Broadway musical production in 2007 that won much commercial success and many awards. The triumph of the Marriott production resides in its brilliant staging and flawless casting combined with a fine book by Steven Sater, who also composed the lyrics. Sater stays fairly close to the Wedekind original in its plot and characters, but smooths out the bumps in the 1891 script to make it work for modern audiences. Sater is complemented by Duncan Sheik’s effective light rock score, a collection of musical numbers that admirably flesh out the show’s emotions as well as its narrative. Characters often sing directly to the audience, uses stand-up and hand-held microphones to deliver their passionate messages. The device may seem artificial but it works beautifully, blending seamlessly with the realism of the dialogue and the dramatic situations.

The Marriott staging is a personal triumph for director Aaron Thielen. First, he has cast his ensemble with a collection of young people who actually look like teenagers. They sing terrifically and act the often melodramatic moments with conviction and passion. All the adult roles are played by two performers and Thielen has gone to the top shelf of the area acting pool in employing Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik. They take on cameos of all the town elders, with their intolerance and smugness and confusion and sometimes their pain. The townspeople are almost entirely caricatures but Gudahl and Resnik bring them alive, adding essential credibility to Wedekind’s simplistic plot.

Thielen also gets choreographer credit, but this isn’t a dancing show. Instead, Thielen masterfully moves his crowds of young people in vividly stageworthy choreographed movement. Set designer Thomas M. Ryan has slightly reconfigured the Marriott in-the-round stage, adding an architectural element that serves as a backdrop for a large horizontal blackboard (for the schoolroom action) and a screen for Anthony Churchill’s atmospheric projections. Ryan’s consists mostly of an arrangement of pipes and medal doors that enclose the stage to symbolize the psychological cage that traps the young people.

The production’s splendid visual values have been enriched by the lighting design by Lee Fiskness and the historically evocative costumes designed by Susan Hilferty and Nancy Missimi. Robert Gilmartin is the sound designer. Thielen has placed the small string orchestra, conducted by Patti Garwood, discreetly on stage where their accompaniment provides subtle but strong emotional underpinning to the story.

The younger generation is collectively played by six young men and five young women, all of them perfect for their roles. On the female side, Eliza Palasz gives young Wendla a fragile vulnerability mixed with a steely resolve. Wendla is sacrificed on the altar of adult intolerance with an absence of manipulating sentimentality that makes the character’s unjust fate heartbreaking. The only other females with vocal solos are Adhana Cemone Reid as one of Wendla’s girlfriends and Betsy Stewart as a young prostitute, another victim of adult intransigence. The remaining females, both excellent, in the coterie of schoolgirls are Tiffany Tatreau and Elizabeth Stenholt.

The young men are led by Patrick Rooney as Melchior, a bright student and the one character who chooses to resist adult intolerance, a losing fight. His singing voice magnificently sells Melchior’s emotional turbulence. Ben Barker is a scene stealer as Moritz, the young man overwhelmed by the unreasonable and unsympathetic demands of the adult world. The other lads are played by Nate Lewellyn, Brian Bohr, Nick Graffagna, and Liam Quealy Like their female counterparts, they are a joy to watch and hear.

Compared to most modern musicals, “Spring Awakening” (sometimes called “Spring’s Awakening”) has moments that might invite the equivalent of an R rating. The topic of teenage sexuality is still sensitive today, though not as sensitive as it was back in Wedekind’s day. The dialogue and song lyrics are peppered with profanity, and there is the abortion (off stage), sexual congress (on stage but tasteful), and homosexual activity in one scene (also tasteful). But there is no nudity and no violence. In other words, there is nothing in this show that could offend an intelligent viewer, and the show, with its accessible rock score, should appeal especially to young viewers, an audience Marriott is anxious to tap, giving the demographics of its present subscribers.

I would like to think that concerns over the frank nature of “Spring Awakening” as a turn-off for the average Marriott patron are unwarranted. Great theater is great theater, and the Marriott staging ranks among the finest accomplishments in the theater’s illustrious history. The Marriott management has scheduled the show for only a three-week run and booked it as a non-subscription attraction. Subscribers must buy tickets separately, though they receive a discount. This show clearly deserves a longer life than three weeks. Possibly there could be a transfer to a similarly intimate Chicago theater where a young audience is more easily reached than in the northern suburbs. Marriott deserves to be rewarded for the superiority of this production. And spectators will be amply rewarded in return by experiencing one of the theater events of the season.

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