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'Spring Awakening' is a timely meditation on youth

It’s strange to think that it’s been just 12 years since the eye-opening debut of “Spring Awakening,” the punk-folk musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about teenage sexuality. The show made overt attempts, with rock star microphones and tightly wound corsets, to align the various aggressions that all teenagers, throughout history, have faced. Their struggle to simply accept their hormones and embrace their bodies.

It’s strange, not because its pop veneer has already tarnished, as so many contemporary shows do, but because of where we are today. We're discussing sexual and gender oppression at the dinner table and in the grocery line, re-establishing the roles we expect young men and women to play—and about the dangerous repercussions of yet again sweeping these fireside chats under the rug. Time is so up.

Which is to say, don’t miss the short, two-week run of MusicalFare’s production of the show, now at Shea’s 710 Theatre through March 18.

It’s not perfect, though it is redeeming. What works, really works. What doesn’t, really stands out. It’ll be up to you to negotiate these ledgers. But if you can sit back and see the broad strokes in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s delicate, yet resolute material, and the keen vision of director Randall Kramer and choreographer Doug Weyand, you’re in for a treat. This is a show about submission.

Take Chris Schenk’s spare set. While its anchoring back wall resembles a suburban backyard deck too closely for my taste, it does serve a poetic purpose, in addition to its layers of platforms for asides and floating visions. When the wide-eyed Wendla curiously enters the stage from the house’s eerily lit entrance tunnel, and ascends those stairs, it sounds like cracking branches. This quiet, serene space, at times a secluded German forest, at times an authoritarian classroom, and always drenched in teenage innocence, is on the verge of a growth spurt. Bones are breaking.

Those cracks, circumstantial as they may be, are just one layer of poetry. Chris Cavanaugh’s lighting and sound design also are exquisite, his best work in a while.

Sheik’s music sounds like how your mind feels at that age, when your first taste of young love feels like submersion under water. Sater's fearlessly mature book, vignetted across what might as well be an hour of one random day, dives deeper than most teen-angst stories dare go. It treats these youth like the adults they basically are, and satirizes the actual grown-ups as charcoal sketches of inattentive, tuned-out parents, teachers and professionals.

But this daydream shatters when you encounter the elephant in the wood: this meditation to youth, told in vibrantly universal terms by an entirely white cast. Yes, this is Germany in the 19th century, but these teens also launch into punk-rock credos by catapulting on top of tables, wireless microphones in hand. There are no rules here. Colorblind casting is by no means an obligation, but at this point it ought to be addressed as often as possible. This was an ideal opportunity that is sorely missed.

The cast that we have works very well together; they are clearly a community, full of love and support on stage. But on an individual level, there are technical flaws that slow their momentum. Patrick Cameron is probably a tad too old to play Moritz, the angsty, conflicted young man who literally shakes at the thought of the female body. This is a physical part, but Cameron amplifies every step to the point of caricature. There’s a measured performance in there, but it needs some more editing.

Nick Stevens and Leah Berst are in perfect tandem as Melchior and Wendla, respectively. Their call-me-by-your-name bond is pure and hopeful, and the necessary anchor in this cast. Arianne Davidow makes a stunning turn as the angelic Isle, perhaps the only free bird in this flock, interrupting the second act with her emancipating wisdom.

As “Adult Women” and “Adult Men,” Lisa Vitrano and Jacob Albarella serve teeth-grinding platter platitudes, sure to turn any audience member into the kind of kid who would rather scream than submit. If they ignite even the hint of revolution, this show will have been worth the visit.

Theater Review

“Spring Awakening”

★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4 stars)

Through March 18 at Shea’s 710 Theatre, 710 Main St. Performances are at 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 16 and 17, 2 p.m. March 11 and 18 and 7:30 p.m. March 15. Tickets are $44 (box office, sheas.org, 800-745-3000).

 

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