“Spring Awakening” is not your run-of-the-mill feel-good musical. In fact, it borders on downright depressing because it doesn’t sugar-coat life’s perils or its subject matter (sexual repression, teen suicide, abuse, etc.). But oh, is “Spring Awakening” gorgeous, stellar entertainment, with a magnificent score and supreme vocal work by a hot young cast thrust amidst unparalleled production values.
BY SANDY STAGGS
While The Greenville Drive fans were treated to a brilliant fireworks display and bagpipes accompaniment Friday night at Fluor Field, down the street another momentous fountain of lighting and musical artistry was erupting at The Warehouse Theatre – the much-anticipated premiere of “Spring Awakening.”
Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, this Tony-winning musical (8 total including Best Musical, Score and Book) by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater is the tumultuous tale of teenagers in Victorian-era Germany and their quest for sexual discovery.
Packed with power ballads and pulsing rock numbers with titles like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” and “Totally Fucked,” “Spring Awakening” is obviously for mature audiences only. No spoilers here, but its frankness and treatment of sex, albeit ever so delicately and tastefully directed by Jenna Tamisiea (yes, that Jenna of Glow Lyric Theatre), may be a turn-off for prudes.
But bravo to The Warehouse, the edgiest theatre in the Upstate, for never shying away from controversial material like “Spring Awakening” or “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” and always willing to take risks and think outside its black box space. The company has hit it out of the park with every single show this season. The Drive, by the way, actually lost to the Asheville Tourists on opening night, but they are leading the series.
“Spring Awakening” features a good-looking and diverse cast of young performers led by Arik Vega as Melchior, a free-thinker and a rebellious student who’s thirst for knowledge makes him the bane of his schoolmaster, played with fierce intensity by Warehouse regular Matte Reece, who along with Kerrie Seymour embody all of the adult roles in the story with expertise and aplomb. These veterans even impart a dash of sexual tension betwixt them at one point with the slightest inflection, though spatially they couldn’t be further apart.
Laura Plyler, in a winsome performance, heads the female ensemble as young Wendla, and displays the epitome of innocence and naivety as her mother, Ms. Seymour in a delightful nervous discourse, belies the birds and bees discussion by reinforcing the “stork” myth of childbirth and skipping the intercourse portion altogether with a vague reference to “loving” her future husband.
Steeped in the era’s modesty in fashion and (braided) hairstyle, Ms. Plyer opens the show with the beautiful “Mama Who Bore Me,” serenading to the brooding strings that set the morose mood of the musical, before launching into a rockin’ reprise with the other ladies.
Melchior, presented by Vega with impassioned clarity and a steady, layered emotional arc, is more mature than his classmates and shares his knowledge of sex with Benjamin Davis’ Moritz (via an essay with explicit drawings) after learning of Moritz’s confusing and disruptive wet dreams.
And it is Davis’ portrayal in “Spring Awakening” that delivers the organic resonance here in a knockout, gripping turn as he struggles and succumbs to the overpowering physical and cerebral chaos, leaving the audience with a residual impression that won’t shake any time soon. Bravo Mr. Davis!
Other standouts include the sparkling Eliana Marianes as the liberated Ilse; Drew Whitley as Hanschen (in the infamous self-pleasuring scene) and the illustrious Kevin Ray Jones (fitted in Greenville’s first stage romper) as Ernst, who have their own virtuous, moment of intimacy.
Rounding out this terrific ensemble are Cat Richmond, Clare Ruble, Kenzie Wynn, Christopher Paul Smith and Parker Byun.
On top of the brawny tone of the storyline lies impeccable vocal work and orchestral mastery guided by Musical Director Janice Issa Wright, who also helmed the music in the outstanding season opener “Urinetown: The Musical.”
From the pounding underlying Latin rhythm (i.e. Virgil’s “The Aeneid”) in “All That’s Known” to the post-climax, moving mash-up of Plyler and Vega in “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Blue Wind,” and the entire cast musing with hope in the finale “The Song of Purple Summer,” the music is simply sublime.
In the magical hands of Ms. Tamisiea, “Spring Awakening” is a gorgeous, transformative production that mesmerizes all of the senses. She also choreographed this show including the famous chair routine in “The Bitch of Living” and rollicking movements in “I’m Totally Fucked.”
And rarely, will audience witness such successful synergy and unified elements in production design, particularly in Will Lowry’s provocative abstract set of a broad inlaid wood stage with runways and grates flanked by billboard portraits of Reece Seymour dominating the smaller, defaced vintage photographs of random subjugated youth.
Kevin Frazier’s enigmatic lighting array is compelling and ingeniously intertwined within the scenic structures from the LED strips on the climbing wall to the majestic pointillism holes in the oversized photos.
And Costume Designer Ida Bostian maintains the drab muted colors of 19th Century Germany with polar contrasts of a coterie of vivid colors and patterns in the vests, corsets and dual layers of stockings.
The creative team on “Spring Awakening” also includes Assistant Director Alessandro McLaughlin, Sound Designer Jim Breitmeier, Technical Director Jonathan Bull, Stage Manager Louise M. Ochart, Prop Masters David Sims and Kerryn Stroud.
The talented orchestra is comprised of Ms. Wright on piano, Kathy Perry on violin, Brent Hooper on viola, Chris Gatton on cello, Logan Belcher on guitar, Shannon Hoover on bass, and Brett Batson on drums.
“Spring Awakening” continues through June 10 at The Warehouse Theater, 37 Augusta Street in Greenville. For tickets, call the Box Office at (864) 235-6948 or visit www.warehousetheatre.com.