By James V. Ruocco
The musical phenomenon that is "Spring Awakening" is based upon Frank Wedekind's intimate, controversial 1891 German play of the same name that was originally banned in Germany for its blatant portrayal of sexual copulation, masturbation, rape, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, communal ejaculation and masochism amongst teenagers discovering the intimacies of their inner and outer sexuality amidst a strict bourgeois morality.
Not exactly fodder for a Broadway musical, but then, they said the same thing about "Hair," "Rent," "Next to Normal" and "Fun Home," and we all know what happened there. Don't we?
Intriguingly, the subject matter for "Spring Awakening," though hardly shocking by today's standards, lends itself nicely to the musical stage. And luckily for us, is not based upon a movie, a television series or a hit concept record album like so many past or present Broadway and West End musicals. Instead, it wisely respects its original 19th century source using a carefully orchestrated blend of pseudo pop, folk-infusion and alternative rock music and dialogue to retell its brutally honest tale of sexual awakening and turn it into a piece of mind-blowing, intelligent, provocative musical theater.
In Bridgeport, director Julie Bell Petrak has reassembled all the pieces of the original 2006 Broadway musical play text and transformed her telling into an illuminating portrait of teen angst and sexual awakening as if she were a proud, celebrated 19th century painter. She uses all the right colors, strokes, lines and patterns. She is a director who wants flat-out truths, bared souls, raw nerves, pain and passion. She is not afraid to take chances. She is someone who enjoys a challenge. And she doesn't resort to theatrical tricks. Instead, she gives you raw, justified, storytelling.
The Broadway production, which was staged by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is a tough act to follow. "Spring Awakening" also came with an ensemble cast that included Jonathan Groff, Lea Michelle, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick, Lauren Pritchard, Jonathan B. Wright and Lilli Cooper. But there is no copycatting or imitating here. This "Spring Awakening" stands tall and proud. There is so much in this show to enjoy, you're rarely reminded of the show that played New York eleven years ago or the original cast who brought "Spring Awakening" so vividly to life.
In its favor, Petrak heightens the sensual tone and explicitness of her incarnation, which, in turn, elevates the play's awareness of sexual awakening and the acts that naturally follow, both good and bad. There's a lot more kissing and touching, most notably between the gay characters of Hanschen and Ernst. And nothing is left to the imagination when Melchior commits the act of sexual intercourse with Wendla at the end of Act One and at the start of Act Two.
Again, Petrak is too be applauded for her bold choices, which reflect that of the creators of the 2006 Broadway musical (music by Duncan Sheik; book & lyrics by Steven Sater) and the 19th century play from which "Spring Awakeing" takes it cue.
One of the most satisfying, uniquely clever aspects of this "Spring Awakening" is Petrak's decision to break down the proscenium theater wall, for storytelling purposes. Actors, for example, enter and exit through all sections of the theater. They often sing or talk right next to individual audience members or stand, sit and perform on a the huge platform of center stage stairs that thrusts them front and center. A tiny spiral staircase off to one side of the stage is also effectively implemented into the proceedings near the end of Act II.
This staging device, in turn, transforms the audience into a willing or reluctant voyeur. It also gives this "Spring Awakening" a frank, powerful in-your-face intimacy that plunges you head first into the epicenter of the ongoing story. It's a wildly imaginative, three-dimensional process that makes you feel as if you.....and you alone....have just witnessed a suicide, a kiss between two lovers, a confession, a group masturbation, a teenaged sexual fantasy, a confused coupling that ends mid-orgasm, a homosexual encounter in the woods, the burial of a loved one or the reading of a very private, explicit letter.
The onstage band, in full view of the audience, is led by the very talented Eli Newsom, who doubles as musical director for "Spring Awakening." Upfront, Duncan Sheik's original musical score is especially complicated and intricate as are the lyrics by Steven Sater. But Newsom, an obvious lover and savant of musical theater, never once misses a beat. He brings the right amount of intensity, intimacy and precision to both the music and the lyrics, often reveling in its frenzied, arousing, adrenalized, impassioned, ardent, fiery, blatant and animated beats.
The singing, throughout the entire production, is impassioned, uplifting, proud and affecting, thus, giving a powerful, confession-like voice to the musical's varying blends of melancholy, discovery, anger, passion and hope. Vocal director Brian Crook deserves singular praise for this often daunting feat, which he unravels effortlessly.
For example, when Melchior is brought before the school's discerning governors for disseminating explicit information about the facts of life, Crook, aided by Newsom and his musical team, transform "Totally Fucked" into a blatant, radical, rousing cry of protest that rings loud and clear throughout the entire Downtown Cabaret Theatre. The sweet and sentimental anthem "I Believe," which augments the passionate, hayloft lovemaking of Melchior and Wendla, is rife with plenty of sensual and pulsating harmonies. "The Dark I Know Well," sung by Martha and Ilse, captures the confusion, the horror, the humiliation and the torment of the pair, who sing about the parental physical or sexual abuse they are forced to endure or have escaped. The exhilarating, pumped-up "The Bitch of Living" finds Moritz, Melchior and the other boys – Ernst, Hanschen, Otto and Georg – hilariously sharing their very own sexually frustrated thoughts and desires.
The insightful, jaw-dropping choreography is Emily Frangipane is brilliantly executed with just the right amount of genius, liberation, passion, desire and carefree abandon. It is also in sync with the show's complicated, beautiful lyrics, its varying beats and rhythms and the sexual exploration and self-discovery Wedekind had in mind.
"The Bitch of Living," "Totally Fucked," "And Then There Were None" and "My Junk," for example, explode and delight in much the same way as they did on Broadway. And like Petrak, Frangipane employs a three-dimensional effect, when needed. I absolutely loved it.
The casting of Eric Regan as Melchior Gabor is nothing short of galvanic. This is a very demanding role with many twists, turns, mood swings, revelations and pulses. Yet Regan stands tall (and well, he should) and plays Melchior with earnest and sympathetic bravado. Yes, he is an actor, but he's so in touch with the character, he's the real deal. For two hours, you see Melchoir on stage, not Regan. The brooding, handsome actor also takes hold of the dialogue as if Sayer wrote "Spring Awakening" with him in mind, not Jonathan Groff, the award-winning actor who originated the part on Broadway.
Moreover, Regan allows us to get inside his head, follow him on his journey, both emotional, physical and sexual, in ways that are heartbreaking, tender, ironic and always very, very real. If anyone is doing "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Regan is the perfect choice for the lead role of Christopher. And Petrack, quite obviously, should direct him it. I'll send them the script.....today.
Vocally, Regan has the right vocal chops to bring his characters' many song's to life, including "Totally Fucked," "All That's Known," "The Mirror Blue Night," "Left Behind" and "The Word of Your Body," his duet with the beguiling Tommins.
But he doesn't just sing the songs or perform them. He unobtrusively injects Melchior's personality and curiosity into the music and lyrics, expertly channeling the emotion of the material in ways that would the show's original creators proud.
One of the plays most difficult acting roles in "Spring Awakening" is that of Moritz Stiefel, the school oddball and goof, tortured by day-to-day fears of failing his classes and the mysterious blue legs that haunt his late-light dreams. Like John Gallagher, Jr. from the Broadway production, Robert Peterpaul completely owns and inhabits the part from the moment he appears on the Downtown Cabaret stage. He's funny, he's quirky, he's troubled, he's dramatic, he's often, an idiosyncratic mess. All of which builds and builds into a completely driven, electrifying, three-dimensional performance.
But Peterpaul doesn't stop there. He adds lots of twitchy quirks, icks and facial twists to the characterization in much the same way as Gallagher did. He also unashamedly allows each and every one of us to feel his pain, his frustrations, his mood wings and his failure in the classroom, and in life. Vocally, he's completely in sync and in tune with the material, most notably when singing "The Bitch of Living," "And Then There Were None" and "Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind."
Casting wise, Madeleine Tommins, is so very right for the role of the inquisitive Wendla Bergmann. She looks and acts as if she was plucked right out of the 19th century and embodies the innocence and shadowy air of longing that gives "Spring Awakening" is necessary pulse, joy, fear and curiosity. Her tender and acquiescent portrayal also allows us to see the world through her eyes and naturally experience her innermost thoughts about love, intimacy and its many conflicting emotions.
Elsewhere, her vocal delivery of "Mama Who Bore Me," the haunting ballad that opens the show, is melodically perfect, well-intentioned and performed as is "Whispering" and "The Word of Your Body." She is also well-matched opposite Regan and "spot on" in their many dramatic and musical scenes together.
Sahai Lara is a complete revelation as Martha Bessell, the young girl who was forced to endure sexual and physical abuse by her father while her mother stood by and did nothing. The emotional rawness of her character's internal struggle is revealed through the haunting ballad "The Dark I Know Well." It is handled and performed with such honesty and edgy emotion, it leaves you shaken.
Arielle Boutin totally immerses herself in the part of Ilse Newmann, the teenager who escapes an abusive home to live freely in the environs of an artist's colony. Her troubled plight, which prompts her eventual freedom from her family, is performed with raw gusto in "The Dark I Know Well, which she shares with Martha.
Much later, Boutin sings the revelatory "The Song of Purple Summer" (the entire cast eventually joins in), about the emotional growth and birth of a new generation, who eagerly look forward to a very liberated future. Her singing of this song, and others, reveals a fiery energy and compassion, which is exactly what the part calls for. And she is just as extraordinary as Lauren Pritchard who originated the role in the 2006 Broadway production. Can't wait to see what she does next.
Hanschen Rilow, the young gay student who wildly masterbates (and I mean, wildly) to a photograph in the frenzily-staged "My Junk" is passionately portrayed by Matthew Casey, an actor who clearly understands his character's dilemma, but continues to pursue his passion for life, boys and just about everything else, regardless of the consequences.
Ernest Robel, the naïve teenager who becomes Hanschen's boyfriend, is sensitively portrayed by Michael Major, a fine actor who never once executes a false move. He and Casey are perfectly matched. And in "The Word of Your Body" (reprise), they can barely keep her hands off one another, due in part to very convincing performances and Petrak's amped-up staging and embracement of homosexuality, which back in 1891, was completely immoral and taboo. She also shows us that love, between a man and a woman or persons of the same sex is a part of life, then, now and forever. Accept it. Deny it. The choice is yours.
Robie Livingstone and Dave Jackins play all the adult authority figures, from brutal, demanding teachers to confused, sometimes troubled parents, with enormous elan. They are both highly accomplished actors, well attuned to the material, the staging and their interaction with the younger cast members. They never once, miss a beat.
In conclusion, this "Spring Awakening" is a fierce, emotional work that executes all the right moves and never once falters. It is superbly crafted by Petrak. Frangipane's insanely inventive choreography nearly blows the roof off the Downtown Cabaret Theatre. The knockout performances of the principals, supporting cast and the chorus are picture-perfect. And finally, Newman's musical direction and Crook's vocal instruction, bolsters the show's sexual excitement, wonderment and blossoming.
"Spring Awakening" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (263 Golden Hill St, Bridgeport, CT ) through April 2.
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 5 and 8:15 p.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays.
For tickets and more information, call, (203) 576-1636.