Theater Review: The invigorating “Spring Awakening” by Short North Stage

When it premiered in 2006, spring awakening joined the pantheon — and rose to the upper echelons — of shows about power, magic, and the absolute horror of young adulthood. The Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s late 19thth Century, receives a vivid production of Short North Stage, directed by Edward Carignan.

spring awakening follows a group of friends as they learn about themselves and each other – Wendla (Emma Rose Johnson), Martha (Zuri Clarno), Anna (Shannon Lane), Thea (Lillian Doll), Otto (Carter Minor), Hanschen (Hunter Minor) , Ernst (Nicholas Bradley), Georg (Ethan Zink), Moritz (Michael Lee, Jr) and Melchior (Lake Wilburn), with the occasional appearance of former student Ilse (Sydney Freihofer). It depicts their universal hormonal and intellectual struggles in a world shifting into a future. Some of the adults — adult males played by Thom Christopher Warren, adult females played by Krista Lively Stauffer — refuse to accept the same way they refuse to acknowledge the main characters aren’t children anymore, with similarly disastrous results.

Carignan reiterates his strategy of using young actors – most a little older than the teenagers who play them, but in the stadium – from his Westside Story similarly powerful effect. The story focuses on the charismatic, haunted Melchoir, wise enough to think that most of the world is nonsense, but not emotionally mature enough to process it without hurting others. Wilburn gives us a powerful, hungry take on the character that vibrates even when silent, and works his way through the next few moves, sure his cleverness will win the day. His leadership, his enthusiasm for songs like “Totally Fucked,” transitions from a simmer to a violent boil in a way that feels organic and exciting, even more terrifying when he seduces the characters and audiences.

Melchior’s counterpart, equal in curiosity and intellect but held down by a woman’s double standards and learning the dangers of loving someone who, as she says, “doesn’t give a damn”, Wendla, also gets an exciting, strong take by Johnson. Johnson’s opening solo “Mama Who Bore Me” builds the show’s sonic world and shocks my senses, and her duets with Wilburn, like “The Word of Your Body” and “The Guilty Ones,” are as powerful as they are haunting.

There isn’t a bad singing or acting performance from any of the actors playing the children, consistently strong and distinct voices that blend beautifully time and time again. Lee’s doomed, singled out, and scapegoated Moritz is a great portrayal of the character as someone desperate to live in order to find a way out of the bad hands that are being bestowed on him in up-and-coming songs like “The Bitch of Living.” and the terrifying realization that he couldn’t find it on the throbbing irony of “I Don’t Do Sadness” hits like a hammer.

(left) L to R: Lake Wilburn, Ethan Zink Emma Rose Johnsons / (right) L to R: Michael E. Lee Jr. Zuri Clarno, Emma Rose Johnson – Photos by Jennifer Zmuda

Freihofer’s Ilse sees and knows more than the others but is unable to act, and her raging frustration electrifies the room when her character appears, and her feature film Blue Wind keeps time at. Clarno delivers a heart-wrenching lead on “The Dark I Know Well,” shifting between voices and rhythms like a cutting saber, colored and accented by Freihofer and the boys. The adults are more of an enigmatic monolith, ciphers, and it’s to Warren and Stauffer’s credit that they make that impression, adding weight and depth to the show that isn’t present in every production I’ve seen. I’ve seen probably half a dozen productions over the years and I have that never I saw the moment Wendla’s mother confronted her, who slapped me in the chest as hard as Stauffer and Johnson are doing here.

The Sater/Sheik score is lovingly treated not only by the voices but also by Eric Alford’s musical direction, who directs a tight seven-piece orchestra from the keyboards, with the haunting piano perfectly defined and placed and the beautiful, moody strings – played here courtesy of Robin D. Coolidge Jr.’s cello, Alexander Locke’s viola and Mad Richard’s violin (also second guitar) – and crunching drums courtesy of William Mayer, also with credit for Laurel Waller’s nuanced sound design.

spring awakening reunites Carignan with his Westside Story Associate Trevor Michael Schmidt as choreographer. Schmidt balances the earthy and ethereal qualities of the characters and material, the pounding and tossing giving way to more delicate movements and back again without feeling like jerky shifts.

Carignan gives Schmidt and the actors a wide canvas to play with, with an atmospheric set by Jason Bolen, and enough room and space to capture the frenetic energy of the burgeoning youth, but also enough space and a sure hand to let the emotions land , including a really interesting use of partially lit mirrors with no glass, enhancing the way the characters reflect on each other, themselves, and the world.

This production of spring awakening reminds audiences of the work’s boldness and power while sadly regaining relevance by sending the audience I’ve been with out into the streets to hum the hooky, sharp songs and talk about its themes.

spring awakening runs through June 4 with performances at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. Tickets and more information can be found at shortnorthstage.org.

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