Spring Awakening pulses with truth and vitality at UNO Theatre. The pointed story of this musical comes across as a living thing. The performers’ singing and acting glow with personality and soul, enriched by co-directors Doran Schmidt and Wai Yim’s perceptive and inventive colorations. Appropriate to the story, this ensemble feels like people who have known each other for years.
Clearly they have material whose own merit has much to offer, especially Duncan Sheik’s music, (duncansheik.com/) memorably bringing out fine choral harmonies and solos, duos, trios where vulnerable tenderness belongs, or when urgency throbs in rock music kinship with the youth of today. Hear how Schmidt as music director points that up with stomping feet. When the rock songs sound, the staging carries extra-musical dimensions, like contemporary rock acts. Of course, legitimately implying ageless youthful rebellion against social restraints.
Choreographer Wai Yim fills the space with movement, using the large area to have young people ebb and flow, trying to find themselves, while dominating adults tellingly hover above them. The cast inhabits these lives in multiple ways, bodies sometimes saying what words may not.
Lyricist Steven Sater (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Sater) wrote the script based on a play by German author Frank Wedekind about life in an adult-dominated, repressive culture of a small German town in the 1890s. There, young people are starting to burst at the seams which confine them to childhood. They urgently want to grow, their bodies metamorphosing, but not knowing why or how to do what hearts and minds urge. Hence the awakening at the season of re-birth. Sater’s excellent, inventive lyrics also urge the story on.
The main thrust becomes ultimately tragic in Wedekind’s criticism of such a society, showing how it damages youth, inserting intelligent questioning of religion and of accepted ideas through one character, Melchior Gabor. While those points are made, they are primarily elements underlying the story rather than the focus.
Certainly dealing with and/or showing masturbation, teen sex, violence, sadism, parental sexual abuse, homosexuality, suicide and abortion, it’s clear why the play was initially banned and an adult language-sexual theme alert is printed on the program for the musical version.
Yim perceptively has stylized interactions across the generations, showing them unable to connect. Or having the body of Moritz, after his suicide, buried as a skinny mike stand, as if to say his voice is forever silenced. Yim and Schmidt also have songs delivered with performers holding prop hand mics implying electronic connections from this German past to today. And they’ve chosen to find fun in having Mike Burns’ Hänschen beat off to the rhythm of the band behind him.
Costume designer Valerie St. Pierre Smith also makes a telling point with Bethany Bresnahan’s Ilse trying to seduce Moritz, her skirt hiked up above a thigh. And the scenic design by Steven L. Williams convincingly, darkly looms over the young people, saying that the place where they live imposes its darkness. Also note his remarkably inventive grave stones.
Amid the performers in this impeccable cast, Ryan McCann, Roni Shelley Perez (above photo), Nick Jansen and Simon Lovell stand out in the most significant roles. McCann convincingly gets across Melchior’s transition from young boyhood to burgeoning maturity. As Wendla, Perez sings with a beautiful, touching voice. Jansen’s version of Moritz’s sad and confused vulnerability stays completely convincing. And Lovell, with versatile truth, makes the most and best of a variety of adults.
Note also a page in the program book. It provides links to suicide prevention support, touching on a theme within the script, which might be very close to home. Further, a post-performance appeal asks for another kind of support, donations to Planned Parenthood, a reminder about the vicissitudes of having children.
Given all this talent, you may want to hold and cherish these young people, as performers and as characters, hoping they will find their way to brighter futures.
Spring Awakening is performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday November 29th and 30th , Friday and Saturday December 1st and 2nd. At Weber Fine Arts Building, UNO. 6001 Dodge Street. Tickets are $5- $16, free for UNO students. www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre