(Even though it’s late March, we remain in one of the busiest seasons in South Florida theater. If you don’t see a review of a show that has opened while looking at the top of the front page, please scroll down the page or use the search function.)
By Bill Hirschman
If over the years you’ve managed to bury the anger and angst of adolescence – or if it’s so fresh that it lies just underneath your skin – Slow Burn Theatre Company’s production of the rock musical Spring Awakening will wrench the pain and passion back into the open.
Since you can understand the lyrics here better than in any previous production including Broadway’s, the powerful punch and pungent poetry come through with a clarity that elevates this edition over the others.
The 2006 Tony-winning original reveled in anarchic nose-thumbing raucousness. The attitude was energizing and led to the show being acclaimed as the next Rent. But the unceasingly confrontational sensibility obscured the subtleties that Slow Burn has highlighted so skillfully; this rendition underscores the heart that was always there, but became a bit lost in the original’s clamor.
This production at the Broward Center is being heralded by some partisans on social media as the troupe’s finest work and it certainly ranks among its most polished, accomplished and effective.
The show is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 scandalous play about 19th Century German teenagers wrestling with the discovery of sex and sexuality in a repressive society. The journey courageously encompasses lust, heterosexual and homosexual relationships, abortion, physical abuse, familial rape, masochism, sado-masochism, suicide and masturbation.
Composer Duncan Sheik and bookwriter/lyricist Steven Sater retained Wederkind’s setting, time period and plot but spotlighted the timelessness of the themes with a score heavily featuring rock roots, and adding touches like singers with spiky hair using hand microphones, plus in-your-face profanity and a touch of nudity.
Surprisingly, the mash up worked well, leading to rapturous reviews, hurricane-strength word of mouth, sold-out crowd of young people and a current Broadway revival that combines deaf actors with hearing performers.
The secret to its success was not so much the punkish vibe so much as the deep compassion and unblinking depiction of a time when all of us flailed in the dark terrified, not finding effective guidance from an adult society that barely acknowledged the existence of sex.
Director Patrick Fitzwater elicits moving performances from his cast in the short book scenes. But particularly notable is his choreography with pounding limbs, synchronized but seemingly spasmodic, as the young people’s bodies erupt in frustration and fury.
The plot follows a trio of young teens. Melchior (Bobby Cassell) is a handsome intelligent boy whose permissive parents have allowed him to think freely, even rejecting organized religion.
His friend, Moritz (Cameron Jordan) is a round-faced shlubby misfit struggling with erotic dreams and unable to cope with the curriculum demands of their strict all-boys’ school. He sings plaintively, “My whole life is like a test.”
Wendela (Stephanny Noria) is a young girl trying to understand the strivings in her body and whose mother balks at explaining sexuality. Wendala’s friends (Cristina Flores, Jen Chia, Leigh Green and Jessica Brooke Sanford) are in similar straits.
The boys’ classmates (Corey Vega, Daniel Kies, Brian Veral and Eytan Deray) are also exploring these feelings, despite the martinet ministrations of the headmaster and teacher (Matthew Korinko and Kaitlyn O’Neill.)
Every song is an internal monologue that no one else can hear, although many are sung by many people feeling the same thing at the same time, or even in duets with a lover.
Childhood friends Melchior and Wendela reconnect in a more intimate relationship as Moritz’s life begins to implode. Multiple tragedies ensue.
The original production was proud of cross-pollinating a turn-of-the-century classic with a punkish sensibility, thereby creating a shout out to the current relevance of the themes. Here, only a few microphones are visible with two chorus members, Rick Pena and Alexis Robinson, and only one character has a spiky haircut.
The superb Broadway band emphasized the banging rock aspects of the score to emphasize how pertinent the dramatic themes still were. Yet musical director Caryl Fantel, blessed with an equally fine pit band on stage, here can rock the house on such numbers “Totally F**ked.” But her approach overall is gentler with the band treating ballads and pseudo-folk numbers with tenderness and delicacy.
The all-Florida cast is universally fine, but Cassell holds the show together effortlessly as a young man whose good looks would normally ensure success in a shallow world, but whose deep empathy and questioning intelligence put him at odds with society.
Cameron has been working in the anonymous chorus of several local shows and earned a few featured roles. But here he proves he has fine musical theater chops worthy of bigger challenges. His woebegone Moritz is far funnier in the early scenes than his predecessors in the role, but his internal turmoil in later scenes and songs in the first act are more effective than in other editions.
Noria, in her professional debut, is a real find. The native of Venezuela – only in this country a few years – has a lovely supple singing voice that communicates Wendela’s confusion and fear, and she has worked for months to ensure her spoken lines are perfectly comprehensible.
Sanford, late of Slow Burn’s Bonnie & Clyde and Spelling Bee, brings out all the subtleties in Ilse, whose sexual explorations caused her to drop out of society, but whose seemingly free Bohemian life in an artist’s colony has left her lonely.
Finally, kudos for O’Neill and Korkinko who play many distinct roles as all of the adults in the narrative. Some of their best moments are silent. O’Neill’s expression crumbles as a mother is told by a doctor that her daughter is pregnant. Korinko in a funeral scene as a grieving father wordlessly excoriates himself for being so unsupportive to his troubled son who has committed suicide.
Fitzwater’s staging just gets more inventive with each show. In one contemplative scene, he riffs off the lyric about a blue night by having Melchior singing in a spotlight above a darkened stage floor where performers twirl blue glow sticks to resemble fireflies emitting azure light.
Sean McClelland’s evocative scenic design is enhanced by Becky Montero’s atmospheric lighting. The fact that the lyrics are as comprehensible as they are is due in some part to Rich Szczublewski who supervised the sound design.
And a finmal nod to that band: Guillermo Gonzalez, guitar; Liuba Ohrimenco, violin; Madalina Macovei, Cello; Rupert Ziawinski, bass; and Roy Fantel, drums, with Associate Music Director Andy Gilbert.
Spring Awakening from Slow Burn Theatre Company runs through April 3 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Running time 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Tickets are $45. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or #Ticketmaster.com; in person at Ticketmaster outlets or the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org. Immediately following the Sunday matinee on March 27, Fitzwater will lead a talk back with cast members that will explore the creative process and themes from the show. Talk backs will take place in the Amaturo Theater and are free to ticket holders.