"Contains explicit language, sexual situations and brief nudity - NOT suitable for children," warns the Gloucester Stage Company about Spring Awakening, the first show of their current season that runs through July 14.
With music by pop star Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, the musical created quite a stir when it opened on Broadway in 2006 with its frank treatment of teen sexuality and striking theatricality. (It went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as Tony Awards for its book and score.)
But those seeking family-oriented musicals, should look elsewhere. Others, though, should welcome this daring rendering of a difficult, deeply thoughtful musical (directed by Gloucester’s artistic director Eric C. Engel). It features a talented cast. And it succeeds despite some uneven moments, which occur primarily during the first act.
Based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, it tells the story of a 19th century group of school children in a provincial German town. The play was controversial from the start, being banned for its treatment of such controversial topics as abortion, homosexuality and suicide, which are as every bit as relevant today as it was nearly 125 years ago.
As befits the "awakening" in the title, these boys and girls are in full hormonal mode. Instead of learning their Latin phrases, they are searching their texts (including the Bible) for lewd and lascivious references to sexual congress that might demystify what is beyond their reach.
There is much cruelty, reflecting the repression of late 19th century European culture. The education the youngsters receive (if at all in this atmosphere) is learned by rote. The church dominates the homes, schoolyard and classrooms. Only beyond, in the verdant groves and streams near their homes, are these troubled youth able to find release, relief.
The costumes, designed by Gail A. Buckley, are marvelous: knickers and tight suit coats for the boys, high buttoned lacey dresses for the girls, and petticoats, buckled snugly lest any air - or roving eyes or hands - explore the forbidden zones of their ripening bodies beneath.
Accompanied by five musicians tucked darkly in an orchestra pit at the rear of the stage, the cast runs through the musical numbers, mostly with admirable success. The struggles occur mostly during the first act. The set design, by Jenna McFarland Lord, consists of a large-scale erector-set bridge, which stands rigidly in front of the orchestra pit, and a scaffold that can be moved forward to center stage.
During the first act, this bridge is too far back. It is not incorporated successfully into the action on stage. The players attempt to make the best of it, but its presence is heavy, awkward. During the second act, the scaffolding is moved forward, the players make better use of it as well as the left and right wings, while other players move into the audience to add needed voice and tension. It is then that the score conspires with the "awakening" in the script, and the play inhales instead of always exhaling. This gives the audience as chance to breathe as well.
It should be noted that I attended the play in advance of the official press opening, and subsequent performances might alleviate this logistical dilemma. Yet the script itself is dark and ponderous during this first act, and only by adding a more persuasive pulse to make the otherwise bleak scenes more urgent can the play truly succeed.
The second act is alive, alive oh: without spoiling it, let’s just say the song, "Totally Fucked," brings the house to a roar. This number features the talented Phil Taylor as Melchior. Simply put: he is wonderful. He plays a schoolboy who suffers early beatings and indifference yet uses his intelligence and his soulfulness to achieve an "awakening." It is a triumph of the spirit over adversity.
There are many other players who shine. Chris Renalds plays a sweet-faced Ernst, who is in love with his male friend, and his vigor and enthusiasm for role makes him an accessible, warm, and winning performer. Melody Madarasz, as Wendia, has a playful wistfulness to her that reveals her vulnerabilities that will break your heart. Amelia Broome shines as several of the adult women in the play, while Paul Farwell brings too much rigidity in his renderings of each of the male roles (schoolmaster, clergy, father), and not enough emphasis on the differences between them.
Overall, the production is well worth seeking out, despite the warnings of sexuality and nudity (a brief nude scene is performed so discretely as to be a non-issue). In subsequent performances, I suspect that the awkwardness that deters from making this a seamless production will vanish. Eric C. Engel’s expert direction, which captures the poetic that lurks beneath the banal, will ensure that this happens.
Spring Awakening by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, directed by Eric C. Engel, is at Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theatre, Gloucester, Mass., through July 14, 2013. For more information, visit their website.