Fans who are familiar with Summer Stock Stage, an innovative musical theatre program that offers opportunities for area high school performers to hone and practice their craft, will especially appreciate the professional quality of ‘Spring Awakening.” The production is presented by Eclipse, an outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage that features its alums who are now college students. Directed by SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway, the musical, which opened Thursday, continues through June 18 at the intimate IndyFringe Basile Theatre off Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis.
“Spring Awakening” is a rock musical with music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Based on the German play “Spring Awakening” (1891) by Frank Wedekind, the provocative work, set in late-19th-century Germany, recounts the story of teenagers coping with tumultuous feelings associated with their rousing sexuality. The show which premiered on Broadway in 20o6 won four Tony Awards and introduced Jonathan Groff, and Lea Michele. Locally, the show was last produced at the Phoenix Theatre in 2011.
The first thing I noticed once the lights came up on the production, seen Friday, was the commanding stage presence and poise each young cast member exhibited. And once each revealed their characters, the high caliber of their talent as actors/singers/dancers and quality of their training became obvious once the story unfolded. It was also clear that their experience as SSS performers had prepared them well not only for fearlessly portraying their character’s sometimes risque behavior but also capturing the play’s complex emotional content.
Director Holloway and choreographer Cherri Jaffee’s sensitivity, skills, and artistry were also apparent in the actors’ success at conveying the script’s delicate issues.
The strength of the uniformly exceptional 13-member ensemble, with no weak links in evidence, was enhanced by the appearance of veteran Equity actors Constance Macy and Chuck Goad who effectively played multiple adult characters.
Turning out notably convincing performances were Joey Mervis as headstrong and worldly Melchoir who rebels against society’s strict conventions; Paige Brown as naive and sheltered Wendla whose lack of practical knowledge leads her into self-destructive situations; and Matthew Conwell as high strung and intense Moritz who struggles to meet the high expectations of his demanding parents and teachers.
Act 2, which, for me, was preferable to the one that preceded it, included some intensely powerful scenes, three of which were back to back. One was a graveyard scene in which the students mourn Moritz who has committed suicide and Goad in a gut wrenching performance as the victim’s father who, breaks down and the student’s friends sing “Left Behind.” Following was a confrontation during which Melchoir admits that he wrote an essay about sex that is presumed to be at the root of his friend’s death. Later the cast breaks into a exuberant ,raucous, production number, choreographed by Jaffee, set to “Totally Fucked.” The next scene was a charming, romantic interlude in which the self-assured Hanschen (David Houston) professes his love to sweet and innocent Ernst (Kevin Rudzinski) and sings a reprise of “The Word of Your Body.”
Interpreting Sheik’s lovely yet melancholic, unmemorable score, characterized by a monotone cadence, was a superb band that included conductor/pianist Nathan Perry, Matt Mason on keyboard, Tyler Shield on drums and Matt Day on guitar.
Responsible for the play’s effectual lighting design which resulted in an often dark-tinged atmosphere and the production’s stark minimal set was technical director Michael Moffatt.
Well deserved praise goes to sound designer and operator Ben Dobler who executed the flawlessly balanced sound emanating from the cast’s multiple wireless mics.
“Spring Awakening”is recommended for those 16 years of age and up, due to its topics that include sex, masturbation, suicide, physical abuse and abortion. It is not your typical frothy musical fare but there is no better vehicle for prompting critical dialogue and discussion about issues, as timely in 1891, the year the play was first staged, as now, for young people struggling with the realities associated with entering adulthood. And as communicated by their talented peers in the Eclipse company, there are no better messengers.
“Spring Awakening” Tickets are $30 per person and are available at summerstockstage.com.