By Barry Reszel
When it comes right down to it, who among us doesn’t want to rock out, at least sometimes, to songs entitled “The Bitch of Living” or “Totally Fucked”?
Just maybe not at the family reunion.
It’s an interesting dilemma for the mostly young cast of Marriott Theatre’s impeccable off-subscription production of the R-rated musical, Spring Awakening.
Does gorgeous, doe-like ingenue Eliza Palasz invite the cousins to experience her first leading role and accompanying sex scene since earning her newly minted Northwestern degree? Will the strikingly handsome Patrick Rooney wax philosophical with a Lil Wayne vocabulary in front of Grandma? And just how comfortable might 2014’s Godspell Jesus, the Wheaton-bred Brian Bohr, be flogging his junk in front of Mom and Dad?
Director/Choreographer Aaron Thielen, Marriott’s artistic director, may save some money on cast comps in this abbreviated 17-day run, but the theatre’s artistic team believes the real benefit from this purposeful foray into the avant-garde is to broaden the Lincolnshire venue’s patron base.
“We’d never put a show like this in our subscription series,” Thielen said in an interview. “There would be major push back from our (30,000) loyal subscribers. But this could be the start of something new for us, something that reaches people we don’t speak to with our regular programming.
“It’s not a judgment on people who don’t care for this kind of show. But here’s the thing: You’ve got to adapt and grow. If you don’t, you die. I love our subscribers, obviously, but we need to continually be reaching new people.”
The “kind of show” Thielen refers to is the one leaving virtually no subject of teenage controversy untouched, unheard or unseen: sex, abortion, politics, parent relationships, religion, atheism, homosexuality, depression, suicide, incest, child abuse, disobedience to authority and tragic death.
Thielen’s is a graphic production that sucks its audiences’ every emotion, right down to its thankfully redemptive ending. Just as great theatre should.
With its story taken from Frank Wedekind‘s contemporarily-set 1891 play of the same name, adding rock music and lyrics (by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) entrenched in the 21st Century, the 2007 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Spring Awakening is a powerful illustration that the core of human emotion and desire transcends time. It centers on the burgeoning love of two teens and the lives of their families and classmates in a conservative German town. A full synopsis and production history may be read here. Thielen’s decision to use hand held mics for the songs’ soloists smartly delineates between the two disparate time frames while simultaneously drawing attention to their obvious parallels.
Regular patrons will notice Marriott’s typical theatre in the round setting is transformed into a thrust stage with Music Director Ryan T. Nelson‘s immensely capable orchestra flanking both sides. The other obvious takeaway is the plethora of young onstage talent complementing longtime pros Hollis Resnik and Kevin Gudahl, who wonderfully play all non-teen roles.
The mesmerizing Palasz as innocent Wendla will see this role springboard her career as it did Lea Michele‘s nationally. She brandishes her substantial vocal chops in “Mamma Who Bore Me,” “The Word of Your Body” and “Whispering.” Male lead Rooney as heartthrob Melchior is every bit her equal, shining in “All That’s Known” “Left Behind” and “Totally Fucked,” among others. Conflicted bad boy Moritz, masterfully portrayed by Ben Barker, often owns the stage, particularly so during his rendition of “The Bitch of Living.”
But even more than these individual performances, the top-notch talent in the smaller parts and ensemble solidifies this terrific production with moving portrayals and gorgeous vocal blends (both acts’ closing numbers, “I Believe” and “The Song of Purple Summer” are but two examples). Plaudits to Bohr, Adhana Cemone Reid, Betsy Stewart, Tiffany Tatreau, Elizabeth Stenholt, Nate Lewellyn, Nick Graffaga, Liam Quealy, Caleb Blaze, Anna Blanchard, Derek Hasenstab, Callie Johnson and Garrett Lutz.
Some interesting sound effects (particularly effective in “Whispering”) by Robert E. Gilmartin and lighting design by Lee Fiskness greatly add to the production. Thomas M. Ryan‘s exposed pipe set design in front of a multi-use canvas is effective, though some of the pipe placements inhibit audience views. Costuming is appropriately period-drab.
It’s a given that Spring Awakening is not a show for everyone; this is no one’s grandparents’ Sound of Music. But neither is it the marginal American Idiot that seeks to fashion itself the millennial’s musical without considering that truth transcends time and generations.
No, there’s a greater ticket to conversation this brilliant Spring Awakening offers—one that beckons today’s parents and teens to Lincolnshire. Patrons can heed this call or be forced to grapple with the show’s central question: “Are we so afraid of the truth that we will join the ranks of cowards and fools?”
“Spring Awakening” is presented at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through January 31. Tickets ($50) are available here or by phone at 847-634-0200. Parking is free.