Seven years in the making, Spring Awakening made it to Broadway in 2006, garnering the Tony for Best Musical. Based on a controversial 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, it tells the story of self-conscious teenagers beset by the confusion of sexuality, and portrays their quest for knowledge of physical pleasures as emotionally damaging — mainly because of the ignorance and fear of their contemptibly bourgeois and uptight elders.
The elemental conflicts of youth versus maturity and freedom versus repression are built into the work's broader psychological framework. And with its frank depiction, in varying degrees, of child abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality and even a touch of sado-masochism, Spring Awakening is a fairly galvanizing opus. Productions of the straight play have been hard to come by through the years, but its musical reincarnation provides a more sensual and abstract vehicle for all its melodrama and daring staging elements.
If the Wedekind original looms as a bit of a potboiler, the reworking by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater, effectively provides us with a darkly compelling entertainment in which young performers work through their characters' hormonal angst and relationship challenges.
The local premiere at Street Theatre Company, under the direction of Martha Wilkinson, features a cast of 13 — mostly college- and high-school-age actor-singers — who perform passionately throughout, including a climactic scene enacting a partially nude sexual encounter and another featuring men kissing.
Among the key players are Caleb Marshall, Claire Kapustka, Ryan Garrett and Kacie Phillips. Along with their youthful castmates, they handle the play's more provocative moments with aplomb and attack the roughly 20 alternative folk-pop songs with natural feeling.
Providing critical support are the excellent Vicki White and Paul Cook, who play teachers, parents and other adults concerned with enforcing rigid rules of behavior and using shame as a discipline tool.
The Sheik score, filled with brooding melodies and a rubato approach to often frank lyrics ("fucked" rhymes with "destruct"), offers a welcome changeup from the more traditional sounds of Broadway, and musical director Rollie Mains uses strings and guitars effectively to realize the sounds of teenage yearning.
Yet it is ironic that as an R-rated production, Spring Awakening can't readily be viewed by those who might most relate to the subject matter — audience members under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. This, in a new century when children even younger than that are already pretty wise to the ways of the world. Interestingly, in the source script, the leading characters are stated to be 14, whereas the musical update considers them less specifically as adolescents (which probably provides more of a comfort zone in casting the show and staging the sexual scenes).
At any rate, Spring Awakening certainly deserves an audience. It offers a strong message about the essential values of openness and honesty and the role a responsible society plays in supporting the emotional growth of its young people.
Circling the wagons
Circle Players rang down the curtain on its 2012-13 season last weekend with the regional premiere of Band Geeks!, a musical that still seems to need some workshopping. Results onstage were mixed, with the primarily very young ensemble forging through the lightweight story while also dealing with technical issues at a new venue in Marathon Village. Musical director Eddie Charlton's small orchestra excelled with the Disneyesque score.
According to Circle's board president LaTonya Turner, a show like Band Geeks! fits into company plans to present at least one all-youth-cast show per year. This will increase the number of performance openings for teens and preteens, but will also require finding the right scripts as well as directors interested in working on such projects.
Meanwhile, Circle once again finds itself in nomadic mode, with no permanent stage of its own. Following the termination of its relationship with Keeton Theatre, CP has performed at Lipscomb University's Shamblin Theatre and now at Marathon Village. Turner says the company is considering all its options.
No doubt, Nashville's oldest community theater will soldier on, doing what they do best: offering valuable development opportunities for younger and newer artists throughout Middle Tennessee.
For information on contributing to CP's efforts, visit circleplayers.net.