A poignant and passionate journey from adolescence into adulthood; an electrifying musical that is touching the nation; Olney Theatre Center starts off its 75th Anniversary season with their potent production of Spring Awakening. With a compelling modern score provided by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, this gripping musical drama is fusion of sexuality and emotions clashing against morality all set against the dynamic backdrop of rock and roll; an absolute must-see this season. Directed by Steve Cosson with Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra, this production is nothing short of enthralling and will bring you to your feet for thunderous applause!
The modern edge of this production comes to life at the hands of Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. With frames of lights that square around the stage, Wierzel pumps the pulse of rock and roll into the multi-colored light display that reinforces the harsh concert feel of many of the musical numbers throughout the production, glaring pulsating flashes for numbers like “The Bitch of Living” and red strokes of passion for “Don’t Do Sadness.” This approach is balanced with more subdued moments of beauty in his light work, like moments of lush green brightening up the forest which twinkles into twilight colors when the sun has set, Wierzel gives the audience a world of hues to look at, each emotional tuned to the vibrant feelings of the scene or song at hand.
Director Steve Cosson causes a juxtaposition of modern reality and the late 19th century where the play is set, blurring these lines with the modern lights of a rock concert and other more subtle touches appearing in the costume design, prop placement and overall feel of the show. Cosson’s choices at blending the present into the past create the actualization of topical relevance, showing how the controversial subject matter is still poignantly relevant in modern society. His mild approach to some of the more graphic scenes takes the focus away from the acts themselves allowing the audience to concentrate on the actors and their songs rather than potential nudity.
Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba deserves a nod here as well for the reality of these orchestrations. Slaps between mother and daughter are perfectly timed; beatings between father and son as well as the gang scene later in act II look horrifically authentic. Kaleba’s work adds a plane of authenticity to the production, letting the severity and gravity of all the controversial topics speak that much louder to the audience.
The ensemble is nothing short of stellar. Many of the musical numbers require vocal precision as well as extreme emotional expression and the performers exult their voices to a level of perfection that is stunning. Numbers like “Totally Fucked” provide an extremely cathartic release with bodies thrashing and writhing against the beat of the song like a tempest erupting from within them. The versatility they display in going from numbers like that to the more subtly haunting sounds of “I Believe” is incredible, mellow voices that carry deep emotions without the blaring vocals but still translate a harrowing moment of feeling to the audience.
Choreographer Sam Pinkleton enhances the performance of the ensemble with edgy dance routines that allow the actor’s bodies to relate spastically to the music, as if they were possessed by its crazy rough sound. During songs like “My Junk” everyone on stage is thrusting and gyrating, throwing their bodies to the needs and desires of rhythm and physical expression while still performing in perfect synchronization. Pinkleton’s work is impressive, translating such full hard emotions into huge bodily gestures that are as loud as the music itself.
Encompassing at least a dozen roles between them if not more are Ethan Watermeier and Liz Mamana playing all of the adult male and adult female roles respectively. Watermeier and Mamana showcase a plethora of characters, ranging from the uptight school masters to compassionate mothers and brutal fathers. While their song voices are often blended into the ensemble their sharp moments of character transition make their performances worth noting as they carry the scenes smoothly from one to the next, sliding easily in and out of this myriad of roles.
The main group of young girls are wildly talented. Martha (MaryLee Adams) in particular has a vicious darkness to her voice during “The Darkness I Know Well.” All of the character’s pain, suffering and anguish comes blaring out of Adams’s voice like a storm surge that swallows her whole, her core belting with anger in its rawest form. Ilse (Maggie Donnelly) accompanies Adams in this number with explosive torment, the same passionate eruption of dark emotions flowing from her voice making the duet a frightening experience to behold.
Donnelly lives up the role of the scorned bohemian with promise and pleasure; a light in her heart that slips subtly into her songs, especially “Blue Wind.” Her voice bleeds with yearning, sliding over the voice of Moritz during “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” a duet that is breathtaking and filled to the brim with compassion. Donnelly is raw and organic in her performance; grounding herself into the reality of her character’s nature and connecting with the audience on a deep level as she leads the company in the moving final number “The Song of Purple Summer.”
We’ve got the boys that take to the stage with great power in their voices as well. Georg (Chris Rudy) and Hanschen (Austin Vandyke Colby) have hilariously awkward moments of sexual frustration during “My Junk.” Both boys have incredible voices, Rudy getting the chance to showcase his vocal prowess during “The Bitch of Living” his solo verse especially loaded with blasts of testosterone in full swing. Colby’s lyrical beauty is displayed later in the show during “The Word of Your Body (Reprise)” where his smooth deliberate sound sends shivers up your spine as he openly explores his character’s sexuality. Colby captivates the audience with his stunning performance, and everyone is hearing his bells by the end of it.
In a show of contrasting realities it only makes sense that Moritz (Parker Drown) would be the contrasting character. A timid and shy nervous little boy, Drown has a dynamic turn of character when he goes from acting to singing. All of his power, passion and emotion is reserved solely from his song. Drown erupts on the scene with vehemence and zest during “And Then There Were None.” His haunting and harrowing solo “Don’t Do Sadness” is mind-blowing as he bends his body and soul to the very beat of the song, pouring his heart and everything that is left within him into it; a captivating moment where you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
There is an ever present innocence to the show in the form of Wendla (Alyse Alan Louis). A vibrant white streak of light in the darkness of sexuality and adolescence, Louis portrays a naïve ignorant girl who just glows with purity and radiates her simplistic childlike nature from every fiber in her being. The opening number “Mama Who Bore Me” is crisp and simple, carrying hidden notes of curiosity, desperately craving knowledge. The whole first act carries this tone, Louis making beautiful soul-searing music with Melchoir (Matthew Kacergis) during “The Word of Your Body” and innocent nubile love blossoming in their duet.
Act II shatters that innocence and when she sings “The Guilty Ones” her voice has changed, reflecting the wounded damaged soul of her character’s plight. The transition is stunning; Louis keeping the audience engaged with ever subtle shift right through to the tragic ending of the production.
Kacergis is a musical gem, shining in the night with sensational vocal prowess that masters this role. He leads the boys in numbers like “All That’s Known” with a vehemence and a rebellious fury in both his voice and body. His duets with Louis make for the most timeless love story to take to the stage. Kacergis has an amazing vocal range, his higher end featured during “Left Behind,” a song that brings the audience to tears as he blends frustrations and sorrow into one musical meltdown. The trio song “Those You’ve Known” is one of the most stunning numbers in the show feature the three lead talents, Drowns, Louis and Kacergis; an emotional climax that brings the audience to tumultuous applause.
Olney Theatre Center’s Spring Awakening is the show of the season beyond a shadow of a doubt! Even the mature themes can’t keep a true theatre lover away from this phenomenal production.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one intermission.
Spring Awakening plays through March 10, 2013 at Olney Theatre Center’s Main Stage — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.