CRT's SPRING AWAKENING comes in like a lamb
There’s no denying that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening rocks, even without music. Banned for its content in the late-19th century, the drama anticipated theatrical expressionism by railing against authority and exploring many areas of sexual and social deviance: masturbation, homoeroticism, sado-masochism, sexual abuse and suicide. The fact that the tormented souls struggling with these major themes are barely teenagers (in the play, they start out at 14) was shocking then and is, to an extent, still shocking today.
Lyricist and book writer Steven Sater and composer/rocker Duncan Sheik realize that the themes of adolescent rebellion, sexual repression and stifling conformity are still with us today. In fact, Rock ‘n Roll was pretty much created to allow for the same expression of Wedekind’s expressionistic philosophies. By maintaining the play’s original time and setting and layering on a punk-folk score, Sater and Sheik created something groundbreaking: a rock musical that really rocked.
So, it is surprising that UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre closes a successful season with a rather meek production of the 2007 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical. Knowing that the cast would be comprised mostly of college students who are, presumably, still very much in the thrall of raging hormones and anti-establishment sentiments, I was sure this would be an amazing fit for CRT. Somewhat, but not completely.
There are things about the production that definitely rock. First and foremost, Michael John Improta’s performance as the psychologically tormented Moritz eschews copycatting the original Broadway cast member John Gallagher. Improta is an intuitive performer who understands that the show needs edgy energy to truly work. After strong performances in Our Town and My Connecticut, it is clear that Improta is CRT’s MVP and we should be grateful he is only a Junior. Counter-balancing this punky performance is Molly Martinez as the bohemian, free spirit Ilse. The ego to Moritz’s runaway id, Martinez has the purest voice and the maturity to carry off the songs that she performs.
There are other strong individual performances in the cast, particularly Cole Prince’s hilarious turn as the carnivorous Hanschen, David Pfeiffer as various male authority figures, and Alyson Danielczuk as Martha. The set design by Travis George and lighting design by Greg Purnell both rocked, too, by pursuing intriguing directions that were not direct mimicry of the New York production. The costumes, by Matthew Charles Peoples, also manage to blend variants of the New York designs with traditional Germanic dirndls/lederhosen, and sexy corseting.
There are things about the production that definitely did not rock. First and foremost, the sound design by Steven Magro was far too subdued. The New York production and national tour realized that this is a musical, but borrows heavily from rock concert conventions. You could sense the cast trying to rock out to songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “My Junk,” but the numbers just didn’t swing hard. The direction by Vincent J. Cardinal and choreography by Sara Andreas stick too closely to the original Broadway staging creating the feeling that this production is more of a mellowed photocopy than a bold original.
Unfortunately, the two leads, Marisa Desa as Wendla and Will Graziano as Melchior, struggle mightily with the score. At times assured and at other times off-key, neither seemed really at home in the rock milieu. As musically shaky as the pair is, their scene on the floating deck (pretty much cribbed directly from the original production) is literally shaky, leaving the audience to wonder if they are going to teeter-totter onto the stage.
Desa and Graziano, and the rest of the cast, excel during the non-musicalized dramatic sequences, which, oddly, became the highlight of this production for me. The second act is definitely stronger than the first act and the show does come to a powerful conclusion with a lovely “Song of Purple Summer.” Indeed, CRT’s Spring Awakening comes in like a lamb, but goes out like a lion.