By James V. Ruocco
It's a musical about schoolchildren - teenagers coming of age - but "Spring Awakening" is actually a dark, sophisticated, edgy, angst-ridden musical designed primarily for adults.
It is raw and dangerous.
It is sharp, jagged and imaginative.
It is amoral, explosive and intellectual.
It is anachronistic in expression.
It is startling and cynical.
It numbs the senses.
It leaves you breathless.
It floors you with its honesty.
It is pure poetry that defies the odds, gets the juices flowing, kicks you in the ass and finally, breaks you in two.
At Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, the teenage repression and rebellion that permeates "Spring Awakening" is addressed with challenge, commitment, stylization and engrossing lyricism.
As musical theatre, it is a bruise your heart experience staged with affecting, vibrant, free-flowing enthusiasm.
It is sensational.
Written for the stage by Steven Sater, "Spring Awakening" takes its cue from Frank Wedekind's intimate, explicit, controversial 1891 German play of the same name that was subsequently banned in Germany for its blatant portrayal of sexual copulation, masturbation, rape, abortion, homosexuality, father-daughter incest, suicide, self-flagellation, communal ejaculation, fantasy and induced masochism amongst teenagers discovering the intimacies of their inner and outer sexuality amidst a backdrop of strict bourgeois practice and morality.
Not exactly fodder for a Broadway musical, but glancing back, they said the same thing about "Hair," "Rent," "Next to Normal," "Fun Home" and most recently, "A Strange Loop." And we all know what happened there.
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, it 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 and intuitively respects its original 19th century source material 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 theatre.
There's raw emotionality to this particular staging of the original 2006 Broadway musical inked and dotted with interrogation, identity and vast, probing explosion.
In Brookfield, "Spring Awakening" puts award-winning director Beth Bonnabeau ("Rent," "American Idiot," "tick, tick...Boom!") in the directorial chair to touch a nerve, command your attention and deftly mirror the gutsy, intense emotions, conversations and exchanges that define the original 19th century story and its reworked telling by Sater. As storyteller, she creates an impassioned, illuminating portrait of teen angst and sexual awakening using all the right colors, strokes, imagery, positioning and patterns.
It's all here: flat-out truths, bared souls, consensual sex, discovery, experimentation, pain, confusion and passion.
No tricks. No games. No gimmicks. No pandering.
Just real, justified, revolutionary storytelling.
Bonnabeau, as director, dances to her own decided beat.
Her "Spring Awakening" is bold, brazen, wistful, grief-laden and bleeding.
Scene after scene, song after song, line after line, there's marvelous creativity here.
The movement she creates, is matched by important moments that thrust the action forward with exacting punch and thrilling perspective. She also doesn't copycat or feel the need to compete with other productions of the iconic musical.
There is her vision, her interpretation, her musical.
The immersive, up-close-and-personal atmosphere of the Brookfield-based venue also works to Bonnabeau's advantage. As with both "American Idiot" and "tick, tick...Boom!" she opts for s staging device that transforms the theatergoer into a willing participant and full-on voyeur. It's a dig deep theatrical process that heightens the musical's intimacy (a suicide; a kiss between two lovers; a confession; a group masturbation; a confused coupling that ends mid-orgasm; a homosexual encounter in the woods; the burial of a loved one; the reading of a very private, explicit letter) its frank and outspoken dialogue, its emotive vocals, its atmospheric dimension and the identity of every character.
As orchestrator, she transforms "Spring Awakening" into a shattering, astonishing, tragic tale of teen angst feted in tour-de-force theatricality, gutting brilliance, quaking honesty and tick clock establishment.
Musically, "Spring Awakening" unfolds with an expressed mix of humor, lightness, seriousness, spirit and drama concise with its coming-of-age storyline, the rise and fall of its central characters, its grounding experiences, its values and traditions and its weighty repercussions. Written by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater, it evolves through a variety of songs - rock; folksy; anxiety-ridden - well-placed and positioned throughout the story.
They are: "Mama Who Bore Me," "Mama Who Bore Me (reprise)," "All That's Known," "The Bitch of Living," "My Junk," "Touch Me, " "The Word of Your Body," "The Dark I Know So Well," "And Then There Were None," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "I Believe," "The Guilty Ones," "Don't Do Sadness/ Blue Wind," "Left Behind," "Totally Fucked," "The World of Your Body (reprise)," "Whispering," "Those You've Known" and "The Song of Purple Summer."
For this incarnation, the onstage band, in full view of the audience is led by musical director/conductor/pianist David Anctil (last seen as Jonathan in "tick, tick...Boom!" at the venue) with the able assist of Josh Rodis (guitar), Charles Casimiro (bass), Samantha Marcial (cello), Em Squatrito (viola), Daniele Browning (violin) and Chris Babcock (percussion). In sync with Sheik and Sater's involved vision for "Spring Awakening," Anctil and his orchestra bring the right amount of intensity, intimacy and precision to the original music and lyrics, reveling in its frenzied, arousing, adrenalized, impassioned, ardent, fiery, animated beats.
As the musical evolves, a special fission of musicality is thus produced, carried off with clarity, energy, purpose and a drive all its own. Elsewhere, the vocals of the leading players, the ensemble and the supporting cast are uplifting, impassioned and affecting, producing and giving a powerful, confession-like voice to the catalogue of 21st century songs and their varying blends of melancholy, discovery, sensibility, anger, passion, desire and hope.
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 and sexual abuse they are forced to endure and hopefully 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. When Melchior is brought before the school's discerning governors for disseminating explicit information about the facts of life, "Totally Fucked" is transformed into a showstopping, blatant, radical and rousing cry of protest that rings loud and clear throughout the entire Brookfield-based venue.
Another standout of this mounting of "Spring Awakening" is the insightful, original, jaw-dropping choreography by Josephine Harding, a five-star talent with a distinct style and visualization, delivered here with great artistry and conceptual brilliance. Her approach - exploratory, mind-bending, dreamlike, surreal, transporting - is executed with just the right amount of genius, liberation, passion, desire and carefree abandon. It is also very different from the Broadway staging (Harding puts her own personal stamp on the material), but smartly in sync with the show's complicated, beautiful lyrics, its varying beats and rhythms, its themes of sexual exploration and self-discovery and its invigorating, contagious musicality. Its flashes of pure excellence, accomplished stylization, inventive pairing and streamlined interplay mixed with emotive punk expressionism and organic thrust succeed as both dance art and coordinated, voltage-charged expression.
Bonnabeau's casting of the boyishly charming Zachary Geiger as the troubled Melchior Gabor is a stroke of genius that gives the production its strong, emotional center. Like Jonathan Groff who originated the part on Broadway he embodies the curious, endearing persona of a young 19th century romantic and dreamer channeling his emotions through self-discovery, sexual experimentation, scholastic excellence and teenaged camaraderie. It's a very real, natural, in-the-moment performance offset by outstanding delivered vocals that include "Totally Fucked," "All That's Known," "The Mirror-Blue Night," "Left Behind" and "The Word of Your Body."
In the role of the troubled Moritz Stiefel, the school oddball and sport, tortured by day-to-day fears of failing his classes and the mysterious blue legs that haunt his late-night dreams, Dylan Ryan owns and inhabits the part of the often-misunderstood teenager. He's funny. He's quirky. He's dramatic. He's lost. He's also an idiosyncratic mess (his character, that is) worried about scholastic failings and being cast out into the world by his parents (he takes his own life), all of which transitions into a completely driven, electrifying performance. If anyone's doing "Jekyll & Hyde," Roberts would be perfect for dual title role. He's also got the vocal chops, as evidenced here - "The Bitch of Living," "And Then There Were None," Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind" to completely pull it off.
As the inquisitive, beguiling Weldla Bergmann, Kennedy Morris ("Carrie," "Beauty and the Beast") embodies the innocence, the shy apprehension, the shadowy air of longing and the brazen confidence of her character, which gives her ardent participation in "Spring Awakening" its necessary pulse, joy, incentive and curiosity. Her tender-hearted, acquiescent portrayal also allows the theatergoer to see the world through her eyes and naturally experience her innermost thoughts about love, intimacy and its many conflicting emotions. Vocally, she takes charge of her character's many songs - "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Word of Your Body," "Whispering," among others - with a shimmering bravura all her own. She also shares a believable, tender-hearted chemistry with Geiger - carefully moving from awkward innocence and curiosity to aroused pleasure and sexual intensity, sparked by real compassion and desire.
Jocelyn Titus completely 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, played in this production by the very talented, intuitive Katelyn McGuire.
Much later, Titus takes center stage to sing "The Song of Purple Summer" (the entire cast eventually joins in), a revelatory musical number about the emotional growth and birth of a new generation, who eagerly await a very liberated future. Her singing of this emotional song reveals a fiery energy and compassion completely in sync with the conceit set forth by the show's creators.
As the educated, flirtatious Hanschen Rilow, a young man attracted to other boys his age, Ethan Valencia sparks a magnitude of actor-audience interest in his characterization delivering instinctive quirks, gestures, comments and emotions that adds real dimension to his already proven character. In "My Junk," - an audience favorite that plays to thunderous applause - his character amusingly cuts loose with an erotically charged masturbation fantasy involving a postcard depicting Correggio's "Jupiter and Io." Much like the original sequence from the Broadway production, it is performed by the actor with deliberate, playful release and explosion keyed to the max by choreographer Josephine Harding (it's all in fun and hardly obscene) who frames and builds Hanschen's hand-job action effectively (most of his transfixed, curious classmates surround him) without any form of censorship.
Alicia Dempster and Eli Patton fill the shoes of the multiple adult characters they are asked to play with draconian registry and deliberation. Given the musical's 1891 setting, they effectively humanize their characters carefully portraying both the provincial and judgmental Lutheran background concurrent in the society of the times and their strict upbringing.
The supporting cast - mainly Bowie Perlman, Eliana Russotti, Katelyn McGuire, Jordan Toribio, Daisy Stott, Noah Leibowitz - offer raw, dangerous, driven, hypnotic performances that transform their individual classmate characters into seismic interpreters of the times, the story and the poetry that is "Spring Awakening."
"Spring Awakening" is being staged at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield, CT), now through March 4, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 775-0023.
Photos of "Spring Awakening" courtesy of Steve Cihanek
In the weeks ahead: "The Revolutionists" (April 21-May 6) and "Urinetown" (June 9-24).