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: Stray Dog Theatre, which first presented this compelling rock musical in 2012, delivers a powerful, persuasive interpretation that is the best of the four productions or so I’ve seen in the last several years, thanks to Justin Been’s shrewd direction.
Other Info: 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.
Been directed the earlier presentation at Stray Dog, but this version seems better. That’s because the frenzied, frenetic nature of many of the show’s raucous numbers appear more subdued in this latest version, with only the second act’s verbal assault, Totally F**ked, performed in explosive fashion. As a result, the impact of that particular number is more accentuated and receives more attention.
Other elements that work beautifully in this rendition include the placement of band members throughout Robert Kapeller’s scenic design. Music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit draws masterful efforts from her combo, which includes violist Mike Blackwood, violinist Mallory Golden, cellist Kevin Schneider, guitarist Marty Lastovica, percussionist Mike Hansen and M. Joshua Ryan on bass.
Tyler Duenow’s lighting bathes the set in a rainbow of colors which underscore softer scenes as well as heighten more sensational ones, and Eileen Engel’s costumes reflect the repressive influence of the era.
Been uses the aisles in the Tower Grove Abbey performance space both to stretch out the stage and also to allow his players to occasionally interact with the audience. He benefits as well from Sam Gaitsch’s spirited choreography, which brings a buoyant bounce to the steps of the budding teens whose angst is on display throughout the work’s two acts.
Leading the strong ensemble is Riley Dunn as the rebellious student leader Melchior, who chafes at the rigid authoritarian structure in his patriarchal German society and yearns for a better, more inclusive world. Dunn delivers his lines with impact and a fierce resolution which underlie Melchior’s passions as well as his intellect.
Dunn shares some strong and affecting scenes with Allison Arana, who makes an impressive Stray Dog debut in the pivotal role of Wendla. Like other teen girls in her village, Wendla is given no guidance by her mother about her own sexuality, which ultimately leads to tragedy. Arana displays a fine voice, whether in her solo opening number, Mama Who Bore Me, or in duet with Dunn on The Word of Your Body.
Another terrific performance is rendered by Stephen Henley in the tragic role of Moritz, a well-meaning student whose penchant for napping in class foments outrage in his teacher as well as his father. Henley shows the crushing melancholy which sweeps over Moritz in a tender scene with Dawn Schmid as the outcast Ilse, a girl who offers a fleeting chance at happiness to her troubled friend.
The fine cast includes an excellent turn by Jan Niehoff as the Adult Woman, whether Wendla’s ineffectual mother or a sycophantic teacher who blindly supports her tyrannical colleague. That man and others are played by Ben Ritchie, who carefully conveys both the teacher’s sadism and the misplaced anger of Moritz’s father.
The female ensemble is comprised of Angela Bubash, Brigid Buckley and Annie Heartney, while the male students are represented by Jackson Buhr, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Jacob Schalk and Luke Steingruby, each of whom does well with her or his moments in the spotlight.
Spring Awakening brings modern musical sensibilities to age-old strictures and restrictions which stifle individuality to the present day. Stray Dog’s studied version of this award-winning show brings out its best observations.
Musical: Spring Awakening
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: October 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb