Friday, June 9, 2017

Youth under pressure in Summer Stock Stage Eclipse's 'Spring Awakening'

Melchior (Joey Mervis) and Wendla (Paige Brown) are about to awaken.
Ten years away from its New York premiere, "Spring Awakening," a musical version of an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, shows no sign of becoming a period piece.

That's to its credit, as well as that of a new production by Summer Stock Stage, introducing Eclipse, the alumni component of the teen-focused theater training program. With its rock-inflected songs by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, "Spring Awakening" is sort of immune from aging. This is despite its being set in a provincial German town in the 1890s (as the program reminds us).

The show imbibes at the fountain of youth, and that's its secret: As long as young people feel oppressed and misunderstood by their parents, teachers, and preachers, this heart-wrenching drama with impactful songs ought to find receptive audiences on both sides of the generational divide.

Armchair sociologists can doubtless point to the loosening of adult control as among the radical differences between the here and now and small-town Germany of a century-and-a-quarter ago. But there are plenty of disturbing parallels as well. The new production, which I saw at IndyFringe Theatre as its second of three weekends got under way Thursday evening, makes no bones about the strictness and narrowmindedness under which Wedekind's adolescents are forced to find their way.

This production features vigorous, superbly balanced ensemble singing.
This is vividly demonstrated by Jeanne Bowling's costuming — thorough modest femininity for the girls, school uniforms requiring jackets, ties and juvenile shorts for the boys —  and the repressive severity of the adults in their lives as played with sometimes delicate, sometimes rough menace by Equity actors Charles Goad and Constance Macy.

Summer Stock Stage artistic director Emily Ristine Holloway directs the show, heading a team in which Bowling's musical direction and Cherri Jaffee's choreography work together to consolidate and crystallize the cast's youthful energy and burgeoning skills. The reflective songs ending each of the two acts represent the determined idealism of young people coming into their own, with the finale underlining how hard-won that effort is.

They were notable among the show's well-balanced ensemble triumphs, at the feisty end of which were the schoolboys' first-act outburst, "The Bitch of Living," and the full-company, rocking-out protest in Act 2, "Totally F***ed." (Singing apostrophes would be no easy task; I've edited the title for the sake of this family blog.)

The leading roles, bringing together the rebellious intellectual Melchior and the repressed, curious Wendla, are charmingly undertaken by Joey Mervis and Paige Brown. Each has a showcase of self-introduction that struck gold immediately in Thursday's performance: Wendla's "Mama Who Bore Me" and Melchior's "All That's Known." Mervis also brought a secure falsetto to apply judiciously to a couple of Melchior's solos. The couple's growth into painful self-knowledge, including the sexual awakening that lies behind the show's title, was both sensitively and intensely handled.

Moritz (Matthew Conwell) expresses his unease in song.
Supporting roles of significance were also confidently carried out. Matthew Conwell played Moritz, a nervous schoolmate of Melchior's headed toward academic failure and total tailspin. His "Don't Do Sadness" poignantly provided insight into the kind of teenage mind that struggles to discover positive options when the walls appear to be closing in.

As the runaway Ilse, Elizabeth Hutson presented a striking contrast in outlook, suggesting how to wrangle success in the school of hard knocks, even when you have to carry a couple of "incompletes" into the next semester. Hope Fennig made the most of Martha, an abused girl completing the play's circle of doom (a Wedekind specialty, as any opera fan familiar with Alban Berg's "Lulu," based on two Wedekind plays, can attest).

Speaking of doom, the climactic scene in the graveyard, with Melchior having escaped a brutal reformatory in hopes of a reunion with Wendla, was impressively staged, thanks to a particularly evocative instance of Michael Moffatt's lighting design.

The show gains a lift above the story's gloom because of the positive grip on maturing life that the music embodies. In that respect, one of the great pluses of this production is the excellence of the band, with Nathan Perry and Matt Mason on keyboards, Matt Day on guitar, and Tyler Shields on drums.

[Photos by Michael Camp]

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