Sunday, June 23, 2013

Awakening To The Artistry At The Gloucester Stage Company - Review of "Spring Awakening"

The Spring Awakening Cast
Photo by Gary Ng

On this gorgeous New England summer day, I climbed into my Toyota Solara, pointed it in the general direction of the iconic artist colony at Rocky Neck, East Gloucester, and set sail for my beloved Cape Ann. The occasion for this voyage was the Press Opening of the Gloucester Stage Company's season-opening production of "Spring Awakening."  Despite my love for Gloucester and Rockport, and despite the solid reputation that this 34-year old professional theater company boasts, today's visit would mark my first time as an audience member at a Gloucester Stage Company play.  It certainly will not be my last.

When "Spring Awakening" opened on Broadway in 2006, it blew away the theater world.  It garnered 8 Tony Awards, but it also served as a lighting rod for cultural critique and commentary because of the bold and raw approach that it took in addressing complex issues of domestic violence, incest, rape, teen suicide, adolescent homosexuality, abortion and sexual repression.  That is quite a bouillabaisse for one play to serve up, but the ingredients blend together successfully and give the audience a lot to chew on.  Choosing to open the 2013 season with this play was a bold  move by Artistic Director, Eric C. Engel, his Board and staff.  This is not a beloved "old chestnut" like "The Sound of Music" that is playing just a few miles down Route 128 at the North Shore Music Theater.  (I understand that it is a wonderful production, but I have not seen it).  Clearly Engel is angling for a different kind of audience than the typical summer crowd looking for sea breezes and light entertainment.  I applaud this bold choice, and today's audience roared their approval throughout the play and during the curtain call.

Mr. Engel, who is also the Director for this production, has assembled a stellar creative team and cast - a mixture of stage veterans and fresh faces.  Musical direction is provided by Catherine Stornetta and choreography by Jodi Leigh Allen. The cast of 13 welcomes back three Gloucester Stage veterans: Melody Madarasz from 2012’s "Crimes of the Heart" as Wendla, Paul Farwell from 2012’s "Carnival" and Amelia Broome from 2005’s "My Old Lady" play all the adult male and female roles respectively in "Spring Awakening." The remaining ten cast members make their Gloucester Stage debut: Lydia Baldwin as Anna; Jordan J. Ford as Hanschen; Meghan LaFlam as Thea; Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Ilse; Ross Mumford as Moritz; Mary Nepi as Marthe; Andrew Oberstein as Georg; Chris Renalds as Ernst; Phil Tayler as Melchior; and Daniel Scott Walton as Otto.

This landmark musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German expressionist play about the trials and tribulations, and the exhilaration of the teen years. Sater and Sheik’s energetic and powerful reimagining of the play for the Broadway stage earned the following  Tony Awards in 2007: Best Musical, Best Book of A Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of A Musical, Best Performance by A Featured Actor in A Musical, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations and Best Lighting Design of A Musical

The play is set in a very repressed and repressive German 19th century city in which questioning authority in any manner - or even expressing curiosity about the birds and the bees - is strictly verboten and would rain down a storm of stinging recrimination on the heads of the curious young men and women who populate this story.  Despite their period clothing and hairstyles, these actors and the characters they bring to life feel like today's kids - artfully bridging the gaping chasm that exists between the life of a teenager at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and today's members of Generation Next.  No matter where in the world or when in time this universal metamorphosis percolates, puberty is still puberty and hormones are still hormones.  The edgy music and frank lyrics yank us towards the present, but the skilled direction and acting bring us the rest of the way towards being willing to set aside disbelief.

I must mention the simple and profound set design by Jenna McFarland Lord.  A very imposing metal structure sits upstage, serving to imply both a bridge and a barrier.  During a "pivotal" time in the play's action, as the adolescents begin to give rein to their awakening urges, the bridge structure experiences its own mechanical "spring awakening" and the two ends rise from the horizontal to the vertical, coming to rest in an erect position.  What is left is essentially an empty stage with this newly transfigured structure rising in a curvilinear fashion reaching to the heavens.  The reconfigured space struck me as a womb with the metal structure emblematic of a dilated cervix through which some of the characters would be abortively expelled before having the chance to become fully formed as mature human beings.

The cast is universally to be praised.  Among this strong ensemble, several of the actors stood out in their ability to reach out and connect with the audience in telling their story.  Key to the arc of the drama is the relationship between Melchior and Wendla.  Phil Tayler and Melody Madarasz shine - in their individual roles, in their songs, and in the chemistry between them.  Melody gets the ball rolling musically with the "cri de coeur" opening number, "Mama Who Bore Me."  Tayler stitches together several strong moments, including his song "All That's Known" and "Left Behind."  Their duet, "The Guilty Ones," is a highlight of the show.  

Paul Farwell and Amelia Broome play all of the adult roles.  When I saw the original production of "Spring Awakening" on Broadway, the adult roles were largely played as caricatures.  To a certain degree, this is appropriate, since part of the point of the play is to show how universally and how badly the adults are letting down these children by repressing their natural  curiosity.  So, a certain degree of uniformity is called for among the variety of Germanic adult figures that interact with the students.  Farwell and Broome both managed the difficult task of walking a tightrope - without a net - between painting with a broad brush the Germanic rigid stereotype and giving individual nuance to each of their not-so-minor characters.  They are both masterful  in these roles.

I must mention Moritz, the struggling student whose stumbles in Greek, Latin and mathematics cause him to be denied promotion to the next level of education, much to the shame and chagrin of his martinet of a father.  Played superbly by Ross Mumford, Moritz reached out and broke my heart.  His obvious internal brokenness and shame are profoundly expressed in the physicality of the character, in his speech patterns, in his disheveled hair, and in his fractured singing voice that at times sounds like the wail of a mortally wounded animal.  After his suicide, Moritz returns briefly as a ghost to visit Melchior.  He has been transformed by death - no longer broken in body, voice and spirit.  The transformation is palpable, and represents an amazingly mature piece of acting by young Mumford.

Ilse and Moritz
Photo by Gary Ng

I have already mentioned that I saw the Broadway version of this play.  It is dangerous to make comparisons between the Great White Way and a Regional Theater stuck out on a cape in the North Atlantic.  Yet I will venture to make such a comparison.  I loved the Broadway version, but I really loved this version more -  because it moved me more deeply.  I credit the intimate setting of this theater.  I credit the choice to have the actors speak and sing without microphones, removing an electronic "fourth wall" that more sophisticated venues struggle with.  I credit a well-synchronized creative team.  And finally, I credit an astounding company of actors who made me care about them and the issues with which they struggle.

Before I left the theater, I sent a text message that read as follows:  "I am at Gloucester Stage company for the Press Opening of their production of 'Spring Awakening.'  I think you would be pleased.  I suggest you make the trip to Cape Ann and check it out."

The message was sent to Steven Sater, the play's lyricist and book writer.  I had a chance to get to know him when he was in residence in Cambridge working on "Prometheus Bound."

My Blog review: White Rhino Report Review of Prometheus Bound

To those within driving distance of Gloucester, I offer the same advice: I suggest you make the trip to Cape Ann and check it out. I think you will be pleased.

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The remaining performance schedule for Spring Awakening is Wednesday, June 26 through Saturday, June 29 at 8 pm; Wednesday, July 3 at 7pm; Thursday, July 4, Friday. July 5, and Saturday, July 6 at 8 pm: Wednesday, July 10 through Saturday, July 13 at 8 pm; Saturday matinees at 3 pm on June 22, June 29, July 6 & July 13and  Sunday performances at 4 pm on June 23, June 30, July 7 & July 14. A limited amount of discount tickets are available to Cape Ann residents for all Wednesday and Thursday 8 pm performances. For these performances only, Cape Ann residents can purchase discounted tickets for $20. Advance reservations are strongly suggested to ensure tickets at the discounted price. Year round Cape Ann residents must identify themselves as Cape Ann residents when making a reservation and proof of residency must be presented at the box office the night of the performance. Gloucester Stage is handicapped accessible. Ticket prices are $40 for all performances. Senior citizen & student tickets are $35 for all performances. For reservations or further information, call the Gloucester Stage Box Office at 978-281-4433 or visit



1 comment:

Verena said...

This is cool!