Story: A group of teenagers in late 19th century Germany grapple with their emerging sexual drives and desires, trying to fit into their rigid, repressive society. Between the stern, authoritarian discipline of their teachers and the lack of any clear direction by their parents, they stumble through controversial issues including rape, abortion, homosexuality and physical and sexual abuse as they struggle to comprehend their own identities.
Highlights: German playwright Frank Wedekind’s original drama, written in 1891, was banned initially because of its frank portrayal of such taboo subjects as abortion, homosexuality and sexual abuse. Composer Duncan Sheik and author/lyricist Steven Sater garnered eight Tony Awards in 2006 for their contemporary musical adaptation, with a national tour playing The Fox Theatre a couple of years later.
Stray Dog Theatre is presenting the first major local production, an ambitious undertaking that follows on the heels of recent, inspired musical presentations at Tower Grove Abbey including Tommy and Urinetown. Under director Justin Been’s precise and focused direction, a mostly youthful cast generally but movingly conveys the angst and confusion of Wedekind’s adolescent protagonists as they enter the brave new world of adulthood.
Other Info: While individual performers handle Sheik’s hauntingly beautiful melodies with polish, the cast doesn’t seem up to the rigors of ensemble efforts, particularly in the first act. Exceptions are the exhilarating number, The Bitch of Living, in Act I and the rousing anthem, Totally F**ked, in Act II, which is led by the charismatic Melchior.
In both of those instances, the ensemble has a clear grasp of the complex score and is able to pull off the numbers in strong dramatic fashion. A problem with any musical at Tower Grove Abbey, though, is the venue’s inconsistent acoustics, which can be swallowed in certain parts of the theater. That’s less a concern on individual numbers, on which Been’s cast demonstrates strong vocal skills.
Conductor and keyboardist Chris Petersen leads a beautifully modulated band from the rear of center stage on scenic designer David Blake’s upper platform. The set features imposing columns that establish the foundation of the kids’ stern, inflexible upbringing and also establishes a suitable background for J.T. Ricroft’s athletic, aggressive choreography. Tyler Duenow’s lighting captures the show’s pulsating nature while costumes designed by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley convey the children’s conformist society apart from the barefoot look fashioned for runaway-turned-Bohemian Ilse.
The cast is led with spirited performances by Zach Wachter as the intellectual and rebellious Melchior and Melissa Southmayd as his inquisitive and sensitive girlfriend Wendla. Ryan Foizey brings a tortured, doomed portrayal to Melchior’s ill-fated friend Moritz, while Anna Skidis is the lonely and unfulfilled Ilse.
Keith Thompson and Jan Neihoff portray all of the adults in the cast, ranging from a pair of dictatorial teachers to Wendla’s timid mother and Moritz’s narrow-minded father. The energetic ensemble of youths includes Meadow Nguy, Sabra Sellers, Natalie Sannes, Paul Cereghino, Evan Fornachon, C.E. Fifer and Anthony Christopher Milfelt.
Petersen’s tight and emotive band features Colin Levitt on bass, percussionist Bob McMahon, cellist Bijhou Berni, guitarist Adam Rugo, violinist Steve Frisbee and violist Michael Blackwood.
Spring Awakening seemed to have more energy and pizzazz when it played The Fox with a touring company. Still, despite lulls that soak up stretches of time in the Stray Dog version, Been and his disciplined cast convincingly depict Wedekind’s tortured characters with the benefit of Sheik’s stirring, evocative music and Sater’s contemporary, incisive words.
Musical: Spring Awakening
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: October 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb