Composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/librettist Steven Sater’s dynamic “Spring Awakening,” 2007’s Tony-winning Best Musical, receives an outstanding local collegiate premiere at Wright State University.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s banned, controversial 1891 novel of the same name, “Spring Awakening” is a powerfully provocative coming of age tale set in 19th century Germany with contemporary flourishes. In fact, Sheik’s marvelous melodies, evocatively tied to Sater’s poetic lyrics, are written in the pop/alt rock vein. The musical’s riveting potency cuts deep as issues of abortion, abuse, angst, incest, isolation, suicide and more are explored. Staged by Joe Deer in the black box Herbst Theatre with firm, character-driven intimacy, the thought-provoking story of close-knit, inquisitive, sexually curious teenagers caught between childhood innocence and the dawn of adulthood doesn’t miss a beat, particularly as their questions and desires are regrettably disregarded by authority figures.
The central, ill-fated romance involving headstrong Melchoir Gabor (portrayed with great self-awareness and sensitivity by Jon Hacker) and the sheltered Wendla Bergman (an appealing, vocally beguiling Tommi Harsch) is skillfully executed, but Deer heightens the compelling landscape by emphasizing the awkwardness and emotional scars between parents and their children. Chrissy Bowen and Andrew Quiett portray multiple adult roles, but Bowen’s maternal reticence and fierce admonishment as Wendla’s mother and Quiett’s incredibly irascible disgust as the father of troubled Moritz Stiefel (Drew Helton, splendid and heartbreaking) are specifically striking. Moreover, in favor of an introspective approach, Deer lessens the material’s rock concert essence by eliminating hand-held microphones and microphone stands, a definitive concept of the off-Broadway and Broadway productions.
Helton, a wonderful Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” last season, uniquely interprets Moritz with a stutter, a decision that generates more empathy for the character and reiterates his peculiarities. Helton is also in terrific voice, particularly in the frenzied “Don’t Do Sadness” brilliantly aided by Erin Jones’ lighting design. Ria Villaver, bringing tender fragility to her role as Ilse Neumann, and Paige Dobkins as Martha Bessell weave a gripping tapestry throughout “The Dark I Know Well.” Caroline Gruber, Liz Romey, Justin King, Logan Torbet, Sean Jones, Zach Warner and Lauren Schorr are uniformly strong in such haunting numbers as “Touch Me,” “I Believe” and “The Guilty Ones” in addition to the carefree “My Junk” and rip-roaring “Totally Fucked.” The cast’s heartwarming rendition of “The Song of Purple Summer,” the absolutely beautiful Act 2 finale, is among the best I have heard.
Choreographer Dionysia Williams’ expressively first-rate routines balance succinct rigor and ecstatic exuberance with the gentility of caressing hands and soft candlelight. Zoe Still provides attractive period costumes and dresses her appropriately stark set with flowing tattered fabric. Musical director Sherri Sutter leads a solid five-piece orchestra.
Wright State offers the third “Spring Awakening” Dayton has seen in two years, but the organization has certainly produced a worthwhile winner.
“Spring Awakening” continues through Nov. 18 in the downstairs, black box Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. The show contains adult language and themes. Tickets are $10 adults and $7 for students and seniors. All seats are $2 for the Saturday matinee. For tickets, call Victoria Oleen at (937) 775-3789.