I had never seen a production of Spring Awakening before so I was thrilled to attend the current production now playing at the highly –esteemed Kensington Arts Theatre(though, indeed, I had heard the glorious musical score before —Music by Duncan Sheik and Lyrics by Steven Sater). I am pleased to report that though this was not the more rambunctious, angst-ridden, aggressive show I had heard talked about, Director Emily Zickler has achieved a show that accentuates the sensitivity, inner conflict and the psychological underpinnings of the many characters (all beautifully and distinctly developed as unique individuals even in the ensemble numbers which is no small feat). The play’s themes of rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, repression, and youthful burgeoning sensuality are embellished with flair and dexterity under Zickler’s vision.
Performed on an elegantly-lit (Lighting Design by Ben Levine) stage that emphasized haunting pastels and evocative hues, the entire cast worked intently to capture an almost wistful and poetic tone of romantic disillusionment and crushed dreams. This tone of psychological and emotional bruising of teen-agers caught up in a repressive, rigid school system and under the maw of hovering parents (the age-old tale of the younger generation versus the older, authoritarian system) was successfully realized with the embellishments of subtle sound effects of birds chirping and thunderstorms approaching (Sound Design by Producer Kevin Garrett). A further embellishment that aided in setting the tone was the precise, intuitive Choreography by Director Zickler—-especially effective were the movements to the more hard-edged songs “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” as well as the tear-inducing subtle gradations of movement as all the members of the cast join together in the knock –out finale of the show, the reflective tune “The Song of Purple Summer.”
In this production, the hallmark of the show was definitely the intimate ensemble feel with all members working under the vision of Zickler and the show’s powerful and relevant, very humanistic themes. Thus, no particular actors really quite “stole the show” as the old platitude goes. Aside from the ensemble feel of the show, the actors were quite accurately married to the marvelous Sheik and Sater score and it is, quite decidedly, the delicious musical score that makes this a production worth seeing. Music Director Valerie A. Higgs works wonders with stunning ensemble singing both on and off-stage (such beautiful harmonies!) and the hidden (behind a partition) seven –piece orchestra could be heard clearly and distinctly. The alternately lushly romantic, rock-edged, plaintive, pulsating and sensuous score was delivered with fire and verve by all the members of the cast and the entire orchestra.
Though it would be hard to single anyone out, I must mention that Director Zickler is to be commended for getting such nuanced portrayals in a show where the score is the star of the show; no actor sinks to the level of caricature or broad playing which could be very easy to do in a play with so little text (book by Steven Sater). Harrison Smith as the “down –to-earth” character, Moritz, almost does shine out a bit with his utter confidence of movement on stage and his varied inflections; his solo “Don’t Do Sadness” is a winner. As the lead female character, the very caring Wendla, Emily Dey sings a scorching opening number “Mama Who Bore Me” and comes back to sing of torment and disappointment in the haunting “Whispering.” Riley Lopez as Ernst and David Tuttle as Hanschen score with the homoerotic and deeply felt number “The World of Your Body (reprise 2)”. As the lead character, Melchior, Ryan Alan Jones is, indeed, a proficient actor and an attractive lead who has a solid singing voice and he scores most strongly in the moving “Left Behind” and in the heartfelt “Those You’ve Known” with Dey and Smith (this song and the scene related to it is so movingly reminiscent of the graveyard scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—where the dead join the living). Jones only needs to loosen up a bit and add some charismatic edge to his portrayal in some of the other scenes and numbers.
Only Christopher Gillespie playing all the hectoring adult men and Marni Ratner Whelan playing all the older authoritarian female characters seem to overplay in broad almost satirical style but, indeed, they may have been directed to do so to break the tension of many of the sensitive and painfully dramatic scenes. Though I have mentioned that the show’s strength is its sensitivity and reflective feeling, perhaps, Act One could have used just a bit more edgy drive.
The appropriately minimalistic and creatively-designed interchangeable set designed by Scenic Designer Anna Britton worked very well in this somewhat intimate venue. The costumes of Eleanor Dicks were a notch-above in precise detail and eye-catching appeal.
In the midst of this cold mid-Atlantic winter, this is a Spring Awakening you will welcome.
Running Time: Two Hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Spring Awakening plays through March 15, 2015 at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Hall/Town Center (formerly the Armory)-3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.
Interviews with the Director and Cast Members by Joel Markowitz:
New Whisperings: Meet KAT’s Director and Cast of ‘Spring Awakening’: Part 1: Joanna Frezzo (Ilse).