Through Sun 8/12
This past season, NBC aired Rise, spotlighting a high school in a conservative working-class neighborhood.
The school’s new drama teacher, portrayed by Josh Rado, decided that rather than staging a traditional, escapist musical, the students and community would grow from doing Spring Awakening, an exploration of “young people navigating a world full of pain, frustration, growing up and peopled with not only teens, but adults who often don’t have the best intentions.” The musical includes incidents of sex, nudity, incest, teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, suicide and abuse. The town was galvanized on whether the show should go on as liberal and conservative factions put pressure on the school board to win favor of their point of view. The musical had one performance and then was closed down.
Fortunately, Near West Theatre, which is now staging Spring Awakening, has a board and production staff who, unlike the community on Rise, are supportive of exposing their casts and audiences to the realities of life.
Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, driven by the author’s belief that his society was stifling and hypocritical toward sexuality and their treatment of youth. The story centers mainly on Wendla Bergmann, Moritz Stiefel and Melchoir Gabor. Denied proper teaching about puberty, sex and existence, they flounder through life with repercussions of their suffocating adolescence, and are forced to live with the consequences of the actions of their misguided parents and sadistic teachers.
Musician Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater took Wedekind’s material and transformed the tale into a vivid and moving musical, which on Broadway starred Lea Michele as Wendla, Jonathan Groff as Melchior and John Gallagher Jr. as Moritz. The staging won eight 2007 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Its original cast album received a Grammy.
In the story, angst prevails. Wendla asks her mother for an explanation of where babies come from. Her mother avoids the issue so the girl doesn’t realize that her love affair with Melchoir could lead to pregnancy. Moritz, whose father is verbally abusive, has high anxiety. When he misquotes a Latin line, his overbearing teacher chastises him harshly, sending the boy on a tailspin toward suicide.
One of the school girls, Martha, accidentally admits to her friends that her father abuses her physically and sexually and that her mother is either oblivious or uncaring. Martha makes the girls promise not to tell anyone, lest she end up like Ilse, a friend from childhood, who now wanders homeless after her similarly abusive parents kicked her out of their home.
Two schoolboys, Hänschen and Earnst, meet, talk, kiss and reveal their forbidden love for each other. Melchoir, in an attempt to educate his friend about the sex act, writes a paper which illustrates the deed. He is sent to reform school for his indiscretion.
The Near West production, under the generally sensitive and creative direction of Kelcie Nicole Dugger, is compelling, clearly showcasing societal hypocrisy and its consequences.
Robert Kowalewski is perfect as the rebellious Melchoir. He has a grasp of not only the character, but that he is acting as the fulcrum around which the plot revolves. His vocalizations are strong. Sarah Farris is properly naïve and tender as Wendla. Zack Palumbo creates a sensitive and realistic character as Moritz. Antonio DeJesus (Hänschen) and Matthew Brightbill (Earnst) are believable as the homosexual couple.
Mike Obertacz properly textures his various adult male roles as does Beth Rene Bamberger in the adult female roles. But one must wonder why she used the ridiculous accent as the female teacher, causing laughter in a play which is anything but humorous.
The music under the direction of Scott Pyle rocks! Based on their goal that “Near West Theatre builds loving relationships and engages diverse people in strengthening their sense of identity, passion, and purpose, individually and in community, through transformational theatre arts experiences,” the venue uses mass casts in order to include as many youths as possible. This often creates overcrowded stages and meaningless characters. Though this cast is huge, they are well-used due to creative staging and blocking.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Near West Theatre’s Spring Awakening is a masterful production that fulfills the philosophy and production excellence of the venue. The script is powerful, as is the show.
Spring Awakening runs through Sun 8/12. For tickets 216-961-6391or go to http://www.nearwesttheatre.org/tickets.
[Written by Roy Berko]