Theater review: ‘Spring Awakening’ Teen Turmoil is Ecstasy at STC

SAEdited (16 of 16)Watching a musical at Street Theatre Company is typically a pleasurable experience. Watching their production of Spring Awakening, one of the best musicals in recent years, is sheer ecstasy.

Director Martha Wilkinson, Musical Director Rollie Mains, Choreographer Holly Shepherd and the performing artists presenting their version of the 2006 winner of eight Tony Awards have created theatrical bliss. That Broadway production and the touring company that visited Tennessee Performing Arts Center in 2011 were superb – and so is the STC presentation.

SAEdited (6 of 16)Spring Awakening has had a provocative and controversial history long before its current incarnation. The musical is based on a play by German dramatist Frank Wedekind that was first staged in English in 1917. That mounting – no pun intended – ran afoul of the New York City Commissioner of Licenses, who claimed that the play was pornographic and tried to shut it down. A judge issued an injunction that allowed the drama to run for one matinee performance before a select audience.

The story is set in 19th Century Germany, but its look at teenage struggles with sexuality and social standards is quite modern: That is largely because it is infused with rock-flavored (and Grammy as well as Tony-winning) contemporary music by Duncan Sheik and entertainingly candid lyrics by Steven Sater (who also wrote the musical’s book). And of course elements of the awkward and sometimes overwhelming journey through teen years to early adulthood are timeless.

SAEdited (11 of 16)Brief nudity, profanity and such topics as abuse, homosexuality, masturbation, teen pregnancy, abortion, teen suicide and violence give this show the theatrical equivalent of an ‘R’ film rating, but in a nation where the portrayal of sexual matters often causes more controversy – and immature reactions – than the presentation of violence that public notice is unfortunately necessary.

Wendla (Claire Kapustka) doesn’t get a straight answer from her mother (one of the female “adult” roles played by Vicki White) about the way babies are actually conceived. Mama’s well-intentioned but misguided and misleading response begins a chain of events that lead Wendla into the arms of an intelligent and sensitive young man named Melchior (Caleb Marshall). But as with so many teenage love stories through the centuries can tragedy be far behind?

SAEdited (13 of 16)Yes, this is the Music City, and with the lure of country music and sterling academic programs like the ones offered at Belmont University, Lipscomb University, Vanderbilt University and elsewhere it’s certainly no surprise to find this Spring Awakening cast filled with fine voices. Nevertheless, from Kapustka’s beautiful “Mama Who Bore Me” opening to the rousing “The Song of Purple Summer” full-company finale, remarkable singing that evokes a multitude of emotional shades makes this production one to savor.

SAEdited (7 of 16)There are so many marvelous moments that multiple reviews would be justified, but since I’m only writing one I’ll pick a few of my favorite high points: “The B*&ch of Living” gave the remarkable Ryan Garrett one of several opportunities to belt out the anger, frustration and confusion of his troubled Moritz character; Kapustka and Marshall’s enthralling “The Word of Your Body” was so mesmerizing it felt as if all present were soaring through a clear-blue sky created by their Wendla and Melchior; Piper Jones (Martha) and Kacie Phillips (Ilsa) are young women whose mature voices add a great deal to “The Dark I Know Well”; and “Totally F%$ked” gave Marshall and others the chance to mix some humor in while simultaneously commenting on the adult establishment’s perennial campaign to crush youthful opposition to rigid dictates.

SAEdited (10 of 16)White and Paul Cook make seamless transitions between tragedy and comedy in their multiple-adult appearances; in addition to the aforementioned the bountiful talents of Rosemary Fossee, Lissa DeGuzman, Spencer Dean, J.W. Miller, Jordan Campbell and Christian Redden are also on superlative display.

Wilkinson’s pace-perfect direction and Shepherd’s high-intensity choreography have appropriate echoes of the Broadway production’s award-winning oversight by Michael Mayer (American Idiot) and Bill T. Jones (Fela!). But within the minimalist set-up there’s ample opportunity to make the interplay between acting and dancing movement unique to the space. Wilkinson and Shepherd have done that; both and the actors are given terrific support from Mains, who in addition to his overall music directing plays keyboard upstage alongside fellow musicians Avery Bright (violin), Luke Easterling (bass), Jeff Lien (drums), Jeff Rogers (guitar), Cassie Shudak (viola) and Lindsey Smith-Trostle (cello). Another great contribution is the strong note sounded by the variations-on-a-period costumes Lynda Bayer has designed.

SAEdited (15 of 16)The term “concert theater” is insufficient for Spring Awakening, though the framing is similar to that style. The ever-talented Steven Steele has once again made setting and lights well-integrated parts of the proceedings. JJ Street makes sure the many microphones used in the show convey crystal-clear sound to the audience.

“It seems to me: what serves each of us best serves all of us best,” Wendla says to Melchior in Spring Awakening. Those involved with Street Theatre Company’s splendid show certainly understand that; individually and collectively they generously offer us their artistic gifts so that for more than two hours we receive nothing but the best.

Spring Awakening continues through May 26 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pk.) with shows Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m., and two special Saturday matinee performances at 2 p.m. on May 18 and 25. Special events include Improv Night on May 18 (Arrive at 7:30 p.m. and be treated to a pre-show performance of hilarious improv by STC’s Teen Improv Troupe) and Starving Artist Night on May 19 (tickets are pay-what-you-can on a first-come-first-served basis a half-hour before curtain). Regular ticket prices are $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors; group rates are available. For tickets click here or call (615) 554-7414.

Here are additional photos from this terrific production:

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*Photos by Christopher Bosen courtesy Street Theatre Company.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).