San Diego, CA---“Spring Awakening” by Steven Slater (Book and Lyrics) and Dunkin Sheik (Music) is back in San Diego at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town after a long absence, that according to my memory was in 2008 when Broadway/San Diego, in a pre tour engagement, landed at the Balboa Theatre downtown.
It’s not an easy musical to watch, much on the genre of “Next To Normal”, (dealing with mental health) where bigger, everyday crisis aren’t fantasized or live happily ever after.
But more than that, the last big musical that would attract a younger audience and younger generation was “Rent” based on Puccini’s Opera “La Boehme” and that was set in 1990’s.
Frank Wedekind’s late 19th century play, Spring’s Awakening, and its controversial subject matter, particularly in the late 1890’s, was banned in Germany for at least fifteen years after it was first published and before it was actually produced. It was first staged in English in 1917. Topics like abortion, homosexuality, child molestation, suicide, rape and child abuse were definitely not topics for discussion in repressive Germany.
Suffice it to say, parents should be prepared for ‘the conversation’ (we have at least 12 years to ready ourselves) with their offspring as they are trying to cope with the confusions of their adolescence, the stirrings in their groins, and what to expect as they come of age.
But alas… most are not, even in today’s world. All this makes for choice pickings when combined with Sheik’s out of the box music that allows the characters to step out of their 19th century darkness and stand in front of a microphone like a rock star and express their feelings in ways they could never have done in the oppression of their world.
When Wendla approaches her mother (Debra Wanger plays all the adult women roles to perfection) about where babies come from (“Mama Who Bore Me?”) and Mama is too embarrassed to tell her daughter about the birds and the bees, there’s a serious disconnect. Without any adult guidance she is left to her own devices and, you guessed it, someone was there to fill in the blanks. (“The Word of Your Body” with Wandla and Melchior).
Some will find the subject matter a bit much/offensive to take in especially the simulated on stage sex, masturbation and yes, even some of the songs’ language. (“The Bitch of Living” sung by Charles Evans Jr.Moritz and the rest of the boys and “Totally F...ed” sung by Brown and company that says it all). Unfortunately truth becomes the victim when not dealing and if you think you will be offended, this is not your cup of tea. Uncomfortable is OK.
As the play explores the confusion and agony of these young people dealing with their own, and even each other’s sexuality, it takes a downward turn when Moritz is flunked out of school as an expedient move by the headmaster (even though he passed his grade) and decides to end it all (“Don’t Do Sadness”), and Wendla becomes another statistic of what happens to innocence when ignorance takes its place. She too, becomes a victim of her own mother’s refusal to deal when she takes her daughter to a back street hack, who botches an abortion.
The rock musical sprang to life first in concert form in the late 1990’s where it subsequently made its off-Broadway debut. In 2006 it opened on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where it went on to win 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor.
Toned down a bit by Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray the production, while small in comparison to the big musical of the past, still packs a solid punch of reality as it follows the lives of a dozen or so young school students under the tutelage of their strict, by the book Head Master (Matt Thompson excellent as all the adult men), suppressed mothers and head mistress.
In particular we follow the ever-repressed and depressed outsider Moritz, (Charles Evans, JR), who is confused by his sexual fantasies; the innocent but vulnerable Wendla (Taylor Aldrich); the gifted yet rebellious Melchior (Dave Thomas Brown), and the abused Marta (Amy Perkins, singing the aching “The Dark I Know Well”).
Ilsa is another friend who ran away to live in an artist’s colony, (Katy Tang’s soulful and moving “Blue Wind” is heartbreaking) and Dylan Mulvaney’s Ernst and his love interest, Hanchen (Jacob Caltrider (“The Word of Your Body”) is tender and telling as well, but for the most part, Moritz, Melchior and Wendla are the main focus.
Music director /conductor also on keyboards Terry O’Donnell’s six-piece band, somewhere off stage, works for the most part but all too often Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design doesn’t do justice in the Cygnet space as dialogue is difficult to hear and music oft times overpowers the voices. That said, “The Song of Purple Summer”, the very last and most poignant, and probably the most beautiful and hopeful is one of moving on… (Sater) “a time when the painful spring of adolescence reaches the maturity of summer”.
Hope springs eternal.
Choreographer Michael Mizerany’s bold stomping moves only make the tone of the children’s angst more significant and Chris Rynne’s effective lighting design speaks volumes as the pictures on the stage itself outline and even magnify the moods of the students.
Aided by Shirley Pierson’s costume design and Peter Herman’s (once again) perfect wigs and makeup, the period piece is firmly set in place.
Ryan Grossheim’s set design with a heavy looking wrought iron wall in the background spotted with light bulbs (Rynne) that blare back at us at various times during the production give the illusion of us being in the spotlight and the turntable on stage allows more freedom for the actors to move, is an added benefit. The large garland of branches overhead baffled a bit, but does make for interesting conversation.
Dave Thomas Brown is a standout as Melchior. He more or less anchors the show with his intelligent performance and splendid singing voice. “(Left Behind”)
Taylor Aldrich has Wendla down as the innocent babe, deer in the headlights, no clue teenager who paid the price for her mother’s stupidity. There were times however that her voice was so low that it was difficult hearing her.
Charles Evans, JR. was the disappointment of the evening. His Moritz was all over the place and way over the top throughout most of his performance. Hopefully he’ll settle into the role as the production continues. This reviewer found his performance disconcerting on opening night.
Overall the ensemble serve the piece well as voices and acting continue to convince even though most if not the entire cast looked older than the characters they represented. Still the play has a message and is a must see if you’ve not seen it before. Who knows when it will be back on our local stages again?
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through April 27th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town San Diego Historic Park
Ticket Prices: $39.00-$59.00
Venue: Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre