There’s a moment you know …
… you’re at an extremely well crafted production of “Spring Awakening.”
Skyler Gray and his ravenously hard-working cast and crew make the first Fresno production of the 2007 Tony Award-winning musical into a throbbing beast of a show. True to its Broadway roots, this deeply felt production from the Underground@CMT, a wing of Children’s Musical Theaterworks, dishes up towering amounts of teen-age angst and surly youthful bravado, all steeped in a feisty rock-folk score and served up with a limb-jerking, boundary-pushing, soul-searching abandon. (It plays through July 7 at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.)
Fans of the show might recognize my opening line above as a deliberate hint at “Spring Awakening’s” most provocative number. I saw the show at its opening Friday, and for the past few days the explosively staged “Totally F—–” has been in high-rotation mode in the screening room of my brain. (When a scene from a show replays in my mind for days after a performance, I know it’s had a big impact.)
“Totally” is one of those hard-to-forget theater moments: Gray has positioned the ensemble cast into a tight tableaux around the rebellious Melchior Gabor (Ben McNamara in a potent performance), who as the up-till-this-point untouchable big man on campus has finally reached a point when his smarts and charm can’t help him in his battle against adult authority. At each chorus the cast explodes, with Jessica Hambright’s raucous choreography turning the scene into a big, mad dance party. Everything comes together: Leigh Allen’s fierce and moody lighting design (the best I’ve ever seen at a CMT show), Anna Rodil’s crisp period costumes, the powerful vocals, the excellent live band (under the direction of a deft Anthony Taylor).
And, of course, Dunkan Sheik’s raucous music and Steven Sater’s explicit lyrics, a most definite reminder that you aren’t at “The Sound of Music.” (This production is rated for mature audiences, with the theater company leaving the minimum age to see the show up to parental discretion — this is, after all, a show about the growing pains of teens.)
But this “Spring Awakening” isn’t just a one-hit wonder. (“Totally F—–” actually comes midway through the second act.) The polish of the production is evident from its opening moments, when a standout Genevieve Becker, as the headstrong Wendla Bergmann, tries to pry from her mother (an intense Jennifer Goettsch, who shares the adult roles with two other wonderful community-theater veterans, Greg Ruud and Ashley Taylor) the basics of the facts of life in the song “Mama Who Bore Me.” Just where, she asks, do babies come from?
Frank Wedekind in 1892 wrote the original play on which the musical is based. His themes, from the innocent journey of learning about sex to thornier issues such as child abuse, incest, teenage suicide and abortion, simply weren’t talked about in polite company in the Germany of the time.
For all that we talk about the openness of our society today and the amount of information available to contemporary teens, those themes often aren’t talked about in “polite company” now, either, especially by parents with the younger people going through the drama of experiencing it all for the first time.
The cutting-edge feel of “Spring Awakening” doesn’t stem so much from the actual subject matter as the way the show is structured. The storyline and characters are firmly set in the late 19th Century, with all the baggage and prevailing mores of the time. But the moment those characters break into song, the music and lyrics are bracingly modern and the presentation highly stylized. With the clever juxtaposition of two eras, the themes seem all the more universal.
Thus we’re given in the more upbeat numbers the jarring contrast of schoolboys dressed in prim uniforms (but some with some wildly creative hair, thanks to designer Kia Vassiliades) and schoolgirls in demure dresses thrashing about with precise, jerky movements. (Allen’s kinetic choreography often suggests a mechanized version of a child’s temper tantrum.)
There are quieter moments, too, and it’s in such numbers as “Touch Me,” when the boys and girls sing of their burgeoning sexual desires, that some of show’s most intimate and emotional moments occur. It’s how we learn about the issues confronted by Martha (a strong Lena Aguilian) and Ilse (the moving Sharon Burley), who in the powerful “The Dark I Know Well” share the ways their bodies have been violated. Dominic Grijalva’s Georg and Daniel Hernandez’s Otto are particularly good in featured roles.
As the troubled Moritz, Matthew Freitas (who shares the role with Cody Bianchi) has some powerful moments as his turbulent character deals with the stresses of school and sex. (His “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” duet with Burley’s Ilse in the second act is intense.) However, I found Freitas’ Moritz overplayed in much of the first act, his jitters and jangled nerves too forced. The broadness of his acting choices might work in the musical numbers, but it’s too much for the more realistic non-musical interludes.
I also have mixed feelings about Ryan Woods’ Hanschel, who has a strong stage presence and a flair for comedy but doesn’t deliver the emotional intensity needed with the meek Ernst (Josh Smith) in the play’s gay storyline. (Plus, Woods’ difficulties with matching pitch in his solo vocals are a distraction.)
And, as with previous CMT productions, the sound equipment leaves something to be desired. (But the pops and hisses, while sometimes a little distracting, were relatively minor.)
In terms of strengths, however, McNamara and Becker anchor the play just where it needs to be. Their roles are beautifully acted and sung, and the chemistry between them is palpable — remarkable even more so considering that their tenderly staged first-act-finale love scene, “I Believe,” is enacted surrounded by the cast. McNamara and Becker, along with some of the other standouts in the cast, make us feel as they’re truly living these moments.
Gray envisioned a darker and more Gothic tone than the Broadway production. Devin Gregory’s scenic design weaves together brooding visuals: broken window panes, an impressionistic centerpiece suggesting a church interior, scary looking trees without leaves silhouetted against a menacing landscape. It feels like a forbidding forest of German Expressionism, the kind you set off in when starting threatening fairy tales. I think an argument could be made that the overall psychological tone of the set actually works against the way the play is structured between two eras — by favoring one over another, you could say. I went back and forth on this, but in the end, I found myself slowly seeping into Gray’s artistic vision. He gave me dark, and I went with it.
Is “Spring Awakening” a generational experience? I think that might be the case. I’m a few decades removed from the angst experienced by these younger characters, and when I saw the show on Broadway — and have relived it since by listening to the cast album — I didn’t seem to reach the emotional heights attained by some audience members, particularly younger ones. That was my experience with this production, too. My feelings for the show overall are more appreciative than cathartic.
But in terms of crafting a beautiful and accomplished theater experience, Gray and his dedicated team have created something that has to be seen. It can’t be missed, and that’s something you know in a moment. And I mean that totally.
Pictured: Genevieve Becker and Ben McNamara (cover); Matthew Freitas, Genevieve Becker, Ben McNamara, Lena Aguilian, Randy Kohlruss (above). Bee photos by Mark Crosse.