There’s so much to love about “Spring Awakening,” the season’s best musical so far, that it’s hard to know where to begin emptying the bag of superlatives.
When the Blue Barn’s powerhouse production of this dark best-musical Tony winner was over Friday, I had no notes in my notebook. I was that fixated on what was onstage.
This is a really tough musical to stage — and to sing. But director Susan Clement-Toberer, music director Mitch Fuller and choreographer Roxanne Nielsen offer some of the best work of their long stage resumes. The result is a smash hit of epic proportions in an intimate space.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 period piece set in repressed Germany, “Spring Awakening” presents 14 teens fumbling their way through adolescent hell in a vacuum of sexual information, thwarted by social taboos and adults who fail them at every turn. Their frustration is palpable.
Apart from Martin Scott Marchitto’s top-notch set, a terrific four-piece combo led by Fuller, superb costumes by Jennifer Pool and lighting full of angles and contrast by Carol Wisner, what makes the show so emotionally powerful is its incredibly young cast. It’s packed with superb singer-actors, plus veterans Jill Anderson and Hughston Walkinshaw playing all the authority figures in their lives.
Wendla (Kate Johnson), an innocent, can’t get her mother to explain the birds and the bees. Melchior, a whip-smart rebel (Sam Swerczek), has turned to books to learn the mechanics. Moritz (David Ebke), a borderline student, can’t sleep for all the disturbing dreams he can’t understand — so Melchior draws his friend a picture. Literally.
They’re the lead trio. But there’s also Hanschen (Chris Fowler), a closeted gay who targets malleable Ernst (Keegan Potthoff). Ilse (Analisa Swerczek), an outcast living a bohemian life, reaches out to Moritz. Martha (Doran Schmidt) has a father who beats her, and worse. Georg (Brian Zealand) barely endures a seductively buxom piano teacher.
The score is rock music. So, whenever the cast launches into a song, those 1891 plotlines suddenly leap into the present, where they are just as relevant.
The singing and acting are so achingly pure they’re devastating. With fresh-faced teens playing teens, the coming-of-age plotlines fairly jump at you in their vibrancy and sense of realism. It’s impossible to watch without revisiting your own messy youth.
Nielsen harnesses raw energy in tight choreography. Toberer has the singers surround the audience at times, and the harmonies trigger goose bumps, tears and rousing cheers.
Lyrics and script are rated R at times. Three scenes include sexually explicit acts (no nudity beyond the flash of a bare bottom, though), and the issues these kids have to deal with include academic pressure, emotional abuse, abortion, fetishes, suicidal thoughts and all the complications of a peak sex drive.
It’s enough to break your heart repeatedly. Also, at times, absolutely hilarious. And always engaging its audience.
This is great ensemble work, with cast members seated on either side of the playing area who add to the singing or merge into carefully constructed staging.
“Spring Awakening” is the best locally produced musical seen in some time, surpassing some Broadway tours in excellence. It’s a tiny theater, so I’d get my tickets early. Some people, like me, are going to want to see this more than once.
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