Reviewed by George Basler
Director Patrick Foti calls Spring Awakening, which opened Thursday (July 19) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, a descendant of West Side Story, the ground-breaking musical of a half century ago.
While the comparison might not be readily apparent, both shows deal with the raw emotions of young characters caught up in a world that can crush their dreams. And just as West Side Story pushed the envelope in terms of staging and themes seen on Broadway in the late 1950s, Spring Awakening does the same thing for contemporary audiences.
Certainly, Foti and the EPAC Repertory Company deserve credit for staging this controversial show. More importantly, the creative team of Foti, musical directors Jenny Gac and Kris Gilbert and choreographer Emily Foti deserve credit for leading a cast of highly talented young actors and actresses successfully through their paces as teenagers who explore coming-of-age issues in the Germany of the 1890s.
While I didn’t see the 2007 Broadway production that won eight Tony Awards, I can’t imagine that the EPAC production doesn’t compare favorably with that effort. The talent on display on the Endicott stage blew me away.
That being said, I can imagine some people will absolutely hate this show. Spring Awakening’s taboo subject matter is dark and disturbing. The list includes sexual and physical abuse, masturbation, abortion, sadism, sexual ignorance, homosexuality and teenage suicide. It seems certain to divide audiences between those who will admire its cutting-edge approach and those who will feel uncomfortable, and even repulsed, by its brooding themes.
To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the musical. That’s not to take anything away from the EPAC production which, let me repeat, is first-rate in every respect. The problem for me is the musical itself.
Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind that was originally banned in Germany for its content. But, while the story of teenagers being trampled by an uncaring and oppressive adult world may have been revolutionary in its day, it’s hackneyed now. How many times have audiences seen this storyline from Rebel Without a Cause on down. Moreover, two of the main adult characters in the show — repressive school teachers — are the worst kind of over-ripe cliches.
The musical, at times, seems to be going out of its way to be shocking, just for the sake of being shocking. It’s almost as if the creators went down a list of controversial topics and were afraid to leave anything out. The only teenage problem not portrayed in Spring Awakening is acne.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the power of the show. There are moments of deep emotion, especially in the second act. At the same time, the punk rock-influenced up-tempo numbers are rousing. One number, “Totally F–ked,” in which the characters pour out their repressed emotions, could be an anti-authoritarian anthemn for generations of disenchanted youth.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, who also did the book. I wasn’t expecting much. Most rock scores, in my opinion, are neither good Broadway nor good rock music. But Sheik and Sater’s score is an exception in that the music runs the gamut from punk to folk-influence music, and the cast singing is clear. Moreover, the orchestration was brillantly performed, and these musicians deserve kudos. (This might seem like faint praise, but having seen Rent on Broadway and not understanding a thing the actors were singing, I do not give this praise lightly.)
The performers sing with microphones much in the style of rock performers. That may disturb traditionalists, but it didn’t bother me because the device hightened the expressionistic nature of the musical, which is done on a bare stage with no costume or set changes. Pat Foti’s direction is first-rate and the choreography by Emily Foti is top-notch as well. Both express the anger and disenchancement of the young characters. Parts of it reminded me of Fritz Lang’s 1920s silent film Metropolis, which pictured a bleak industrial world of the future. Even more ominous was the hint of the Nazi goose-stepping that, of course, will engulf Spring Awakening’s characters 40 years later.
Singling out performers in the largely college-age cast is, in a way, unfair, because everyone is so good. One of the real joys of the Spring Awakening production is seeing just how much young talent exists in the area. That being said, the show rises and falls on the strengths of the three leads, and they’re all top-notch. Anne Fabiano totally shines in portraying the sexually confused, naive and ultimately tragic teenage girl, Wendla. Jeff Tagliaferro is suitably charismatic as the rebel Melchior, who becomes Wendla’s lover. Especially impressive is Dave Klodowski, who captures the deep-seated shame, disgust and anger of Moritz, a fellow student who is ultimately crushed by the system.
I was also deeply impressed by the vocal and acting ability of Lauren Kovasic whose character, Ilse, almost saves Moritz. Their scene together in the second act is one of the show’s highlights.
Finally, I have to tip my hat to the two adults in the show, René Neville and Luke Edsall. They have the thankless task of playing multiple adult roles in a musical focused on young people. They do it well. I was deeply moved by Edsall’s emotional breakdown at the grave of a son who he unwittingly helped drive to suicide. Nevelle’s turn as Wendla’s confused and pathetic mother whose fear of social rebuke and convention leads to ultimate tragedy is touching.
Spring Awakening is probably not for everyone. You may find it disturbing. But you won’t be bored. And that’s what theater is all about.
Performances are 8 p.m. today and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday (July 20-22) at EPAC, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $18 ($15 for seniors age 65 and older); call EPAC at 785-8903 or go online to www.EndicottArts.com. Advance purchase may be in order; Thursday’s show was nearly sold out downstairs.