Every grown-up remembers it's not easy transitioning from kid to adult.
This week teen actors, and actors playing teens, dominate local stages in three very different coming-of-age stories that open Friday.
In Omaha's Old Market, the dark themes of suicide, abortion and child abuse fill “Spring Awakening.” The musical, set in repressed 1891 Germany, won eight Tonys and caps the Blue Barn Theatre's “Season of Rebellion.” At least four cast members are under age 18.
There's also rebellion in the air at the Bellevue Little Theatre. “Over the Tavern” presents the Pazinskis, a 1950s Catholic family in which four kids, played by four teens, are getting old enough to question the church, deal with puberty and dating and push back against parental authority. The comedy includes moments of substantive family drama.
“Happy Days — A New Musical” at the Chanticleer in Council Bluffs also deals with teen life in the 1950s, but that show is more lighthearted. Guys and girls alike obsess on the mysteries of dating, But one problem dominates: Clean-cut Richie and cool biker Fonzie want to save Arnold's Drive-In from becoming a parking lot.
With broad comedy and iconic characters, the “Happy Days” musical can easily get away with adults in key teen roles — just like the hit TV sitcom it's based on, said Chanticleer guest director Todd Brooks.
“They're just a little more mature in vocal sound and dance ability,” he said of older actors. Plus, he said, they have fewer rehearsal schedule conflicts often caused by school events.
Stephen Michael Shelton (Fonzie) and Matt Hemmingway (Richie) are adults who play teens in the cast, which also includes teens Morgan Herbener and Tyler Butler as Joanie and Chachi.
In contrast, Blue Barn director Susan Clement Toberer said the youth of her lead players adds power and poignancy to the gritty realism of “Spring Awakening.”
“They just get into it,” Toberer said. “It's their age range, and the story is about them, how their voices need to be heard. They really dig into it in a way I could not have had an older cast do.”
Mitch Fuller, the show's music director, said the cast's high schoolers, including Kate Johnson, Alexia Childers and Sarah Dyer, are exceptional in their work ethic, tackling some of the most difficult music he's ever taught.
“You ask them to do something and they dive into it,” he said. “I find myself forgetting they're not older.”
Toberer said she softened her initial approach with the teens because she didn't know their levels of confidence and experience, but she sees no difference in directing teens or adults.
Doug Marr, who is directing “Over the Tavern” at Bellevue, agreed.
“Obviously you have to be sensitive to their age,” he said, “but I don't yell at any actors. I probably swear less when they're around. But I treat them no differently.”
Marr, who has cast dozens of teens in a series of “Brady Bunch” skits at the Circle Theater for 15 years, is a veteran youth director. He said he's pleased with his Pazinski kids: Will Donlan, Brock McCullough, Roxanne McKaig and Zachary Prall.
McCullough and McKaig said community theater feels more professional than school plays they've done.
“Here the director still leads, but he listens to my ideas. We have more say with our characters,” McKaig said.
Toberer finds that works both ways.
“These kids listen to what I say, and they ask questions. We try different approaches, different emotions, and that sometimes leads to a little moment of astonishing truth.”
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