The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department does not shy away from challenging work – and with the new rock musical production, “Spring Awakening,” appears to thrive on it. Under the direction of Department Chairwoman Paula McGlasson, URI Theatre raises the bar and treats audiences to an impeccably crafted, passionate and thought-provoking performance.
The creation of singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik (music) and playwright Steven Sater (book and lyrics), “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway in 2006. Though the run was ultimately cut short by the financial crisis, the acclaimed Broadway production won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, as well as a Grammy Award for the original cast album. Since then, the rock musical has seen a number of successful productions worldwide, including a Broadway revival in 2015.
Advertisements warn that the show “includes mature language and subject matter” and is “not recommended for children.” It may therefore surprise theatergoers to know that that “Spring Awakening” is based on Frank Wedekind’s scandalous fin-de-siècle masterpiece by the same name. Written in the early 1890s when the dramatist was in his 20s, Wedekind’s play was a controversial and theatrically innovative critique on the rigid bourgeois social order of the time. Because of the play’s provocative handling of taboo subject matter, it was not performed until 1906 and is frequently banned and censored.
Sheik and Sater’s retelling inhabits the original setting – “a provincial German town in the 1890s,” as described in URI’s playbill. Over a century later, the show confronts themes that still resonate today, especially for young people. The musical explores issues of adolescence and sexuality while addressing topics of teen sex, homosexuality, masturbation, depression, suicide, child abuse, incest and abortion. Although the title refers to sexual awakening, the musical is, at its heart, a collective coming-of-age story, which offers a raw and unflinching view of adolescent sexuality as one driving force behind the human spirit.
“Spring Awakening” is built around a familiar tale of star-crossed young lovers, Wendla and Melchior, who are overcome by their burgeoning love and lust for one another, but find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and punishing social order. Although the plot comes to focus on their poignant teenage love story, a third protagonist is central to the action. Moritz, Melchior’s intense and tortured schoolmate, is bewildered by his nascent sexuality and consumed by a fear of being branded a failure by teachers and parents. Beyond these three protagonists, the musical is very much an ensemble effort that explores adolescent identity in a hostile and repressive world with a void of adult compassion and guidance.
The jarring juxtaposition between the rock music style and distant setting is employed to sharply contrast the characters’ inner emotions of confused desire with the harsh consequences when expressed in the lived world. Sheik’s music is often sparse and simple, with a distinctive sound that is consistent even as it gestures variously to pop, folk, grunge, punk, and straightforward rock and roll. A departure from conventions of musical theater, Sater’s lyrics are poetic, often inscrutable and enigmatic. Through song – and also movement and choreography – a single character’s intimate and personal struggle frequently evolves into an ensemble piece. The contributions of the supporting chorus transform individual pain and tumult into a shared experience. With the familiarity of rock music, the songs provide a psychological interaction between the characters and the inner minds of the audience. The individual stories are also our stories.
In the central roles of Wendla and Melchior, Emma Walker and Steven Carvalho present a moving contrast between her sexual ignorance and his book knowledge only to undermine it as they become entangled in their brief and complicated love affair. Each approaches their character with a matching sincerity and clarity. Walker’s singing voice has a strength and purity which set the tone from the haunting opening moments of “Mama Who Bore Me,” an ode to the mother “who gave me no way to handle things.” Carvalho matches Walker’s simple and honest beauty, particularly in “Left Behind,” a tribute to his friend Moritz. In Melchior, he also locates a dynamic range of emotion, entangled in “a world where teachers – like parents – view us as merely so much raw material for an obedient and productive society.”
In contrast to Melchior’s precocious ruminations, Ben Church infuses Moritz with an edgy and desperate anxiety, but also a tragic innocence. Church is one of URI’s most watchable actors who continues to grow and surprise audiences. Here, Moritz’s vast and turbulent struggle is laid bare through Church’s raw vocal dynamics and compelling stage presence. Church oscillates freely between hopeful yearning and despair, which explodes during “Don’t Do Sadness.”
This is an ensemble production and the talented supporting cast frequently shines through. A haunting song about child sexual abuse, “The Dark I Know Well,” is poignantly rendered by Valerie Ferris as Martha and supported by Emily Carter as Ilse. Carter’s Ilse later has a powerful moment in “Blue Wind” while attempting to rescue Moritz from his dark path. Brooks Shatraw makes the most of his role as Georg, with a commanding vocal solo during the ensemble showstopper “Touch Me.”
John Thomas Cuhna’s Hanschen pleases the crowd (and himself) during the anthem “The B--ch of Living.” Cuhna returns for a powerful scene with the endearing and funny Jake Farnum as Hanschen’s love interest Ernst during the reprise of “The Word of Your Body.” Their repetition of “you’re gonna be wounded, you’re gonna be my wound” becomes an aching reminder of the consequences of power, control and domination at work on both the mind and the corporeal body.
URI Theatre’s musicals have become a must-see in the area arts scene, as McGlasson marshals contributions from a large production staff and crew with deftly interwoven scenic, costume, lighting and sound design. The set and projection design of Kent Homchick and lighting of Christian Wittwer evoke haunting dream worlds of imagination and symbolism. Dante Sciarra’s expressive and energetic choreography also shines through, particularly in the ensemble showstoppers “B--ch of Living” and “Totally F---ed.”
It is the courageous performance of the student cast that takes center stage at URI’s Robert E. Will Theatre – and earned the appreciative standing ovation opening weekend. URI’s “Spring Awakening” is, in many ways, a companion to its recent production of “columbinus” rather than recent big musical productions like “Legally Blonde” or “Avenue Q.” This production is at its most vital and compelling as a youthful and full-throated defense of truth and freedom and a heart-wrenching vision of a better world, even in the face of its tragic monstrosity.