Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Spring" eternal at the Oriental

"Spring Awakening"
Through May 8
Ford Center for Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
(800) 775-2000

"Spring Awakening," the Tony award-winning musical based on the controversial play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, returned to the Oriental Theatre for an eight-show, non-Equity run May 3 with its moving yet incredibly sobering message firmly in place.

Kudos to the tour's producer NETworks. The group has raided some of the best performing arts colleges and programs from around the country to assemble its cast of non-Equity performers. Most are either recent graduates or still in school and the casts' talent and youthful energy are put to good use in a show that requires its ensemble to jump around for much of the show.

For the uninitiated, the show is a period piece with the rock music acting as the inner-most thoughts of the sheltered and conflicted teens.The point, of course, is that very little has changed since Wedekind first wrote the play. Parents, in an effort to keep their children young and innocent for as long as possible, do some pretty horrendous things in their efforts to protect their offspring. One needs only to substitute the children of 19th century Germany for home schooled children in modern America. I don't mean that as a slight on home schooling (I have nieces and nephews who have been home schooled). A parent's desire to protect their child is natural, but there is a danger when you try to fully insulate your child. The outside world is going to always be there and whether you wish to admit it or not, your child will eventually grow up and discover that world. One only can hope that you have prepared them to deal with that world.

The conflict begins immediately as Wendla (the sweet-voiced, appropriately naive and innocent Elizabeth Judd) fights with her mother (Sarah Kleeman, playing all the adult female roles). Wendla wants to wear a favorite dress that, because of her blossoming body, is now a little too revealing. The fact that she isn't cognizant of the changes taking place with her own body is no surprise. She's going to be an aunt for the second time and still doesn't know where babies come from. She's so insulated, in fact, that she has never felt pain. Later on in the show, one of the more difficult scenes to watch is when she asks her former childhood playmate Melchior (Christopher Wood) to beat her with a switch so she can finally feel what pain is and he complies.

Wood's Melchior, meanwhile, is a boy who is a little bit too clever for his own good who is pretty convinced he has the whole world figured out ("All That's Known"). Like the hero of Goethe's Faust (the book he is currently reading), Melchior is on a mission to find the true essence of life and to share his knowledge with his classmates and friends. Suffice to say his attempt to free his classmates from the shackles of sexual ignorance have tragic results for all involved.

Rounding out the trio of main characters is Melchior's best friend and misfit Moritz (the appropriately punk-ish Coby Getzug). His academic ineptitude is being compounded by the distractions of his raging hormones. Of course, though he thinks he is the only one suffering these afflictions, it isn't the case as we found out with the infectious "The Bitch of Living."

As the show's secret gay lovers Devon Stone and Daniel Plimpton (Hanschen and Ernst, respectively) mostly play things for laughs. Hanschen even  imparts some pretty good advice to Ernst when he tells him to "let the system work for you."

Wendla's friend Martha (a soulful Aliya Bowles) is being beaten and sexually abused by her father. Though her friends urge her to seek help, she declines. After all, she is well aware of what happened to Ilse (Courtney Markowitz), another girl in town who was shunned when she went public with the abuse she suffered. Ilse now lives in an artists' commune where she is passed from painter to painter. . The two young women deliver a haunting anthem of the anger bubbling just below the surface in "The Dark I Know Well."

As the tragic and free-spirited Ilse, Markowitz is extremely likable whether pleading with Moritz to stop and just enjoy life ("Blue Wind") or with the audience to "listen to what's in the heart of a child/a song so big in one so small" in the show's final song of hope, "The Song of Purple Summer." It was during the latter song that the show offered up one of its most moving moments last night. The instruments faded away and a wave of a capella ensemble voices rippled out into the audience as the cast walked toward the lip of the stage.

The rock score might not sit well with fans of the traditional Broadway music. To which I say: get over it. If the Broadway musical has any hope of remaining relevant, it is in finding a musical vernacular that continues to speak to a modern audience. To that extent, I think the show's score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater succeeds. One only has to look to high school commencements. The traditional song of choice for many schools was "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Rogers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical "Carousel"). I've been to a couple of them that featured "The Song of Purple Summer" instead.

The cast of "Spring Awakening" will also perform 11:30 p.m. tonight, May 4 at Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret. Tickets, $15. Proceeds benefit the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth. For reservations, call (773) 278-1830;

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