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Coming of age – ‘Spring Awakening’

Some Theatre Company presents challenging musical

Published in Happenings
Wednesday, 20 February 2013 13:44

Growing pains Spring Awakening'

UMaine production combines old story, new music

ORONO We live in a world that has become oversensualized in a lot of ways. When it comes to teenagers especially, it can sometimes seem like adolescence has become a race to the finish line of sexuality. At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy they grow up so fast these days.

Of course, while it can be argued that kids today learn too much too soon, it can also be very easy to forget that not so long ago, young people were kept in the dark about basic emotional interactions and their very natural (and very human) sexuality. Too much knowledge might merit our concern, but so too does too little.

The musical 'Spring Awakening,' based on a century-old German play of the same name, offers an exploration of a time when the physical and emotional sensations of the youth were misunderstood unknowns. The University of Maine School of Performing Arts is presenting their own production of the musical, which features book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. The show runs through Feb. 24 at Hauck Auditorium on the UMaine campus.

The action takes place in Germany in the late 1800s. Wendla (Hope Milne) is a young girl who is just starting to realize that there is so much about the world that she simply doesn't know. Her parents, rather than deal with her as an adult, instead insist on treating her like the child she no longer is.

Meanwhile, Melchior (Austin Erickson) is a young man whose intelligence and inquisitiveness make him a bit of a handful in the strict authoritarian schools. His classmate Moritz (Garrett Rollins) doesn't have Melchior's natural gifts, and so finds himself struggling both with the high academic expectations and the stern and harsh strictures of the system.

We watch as these teenagers along with their friends slowly begin to discover the realities of who they are. This self-exploration wends its way through a number of basic truths of growing up. However, these kids have not been equipped to deal with the realities of the world. Things like puberty and sexuality (hetero and homo alike), pregnancy and abuse (physical and sexual) are thrust into their lives, and they haven't the slightest idea of how to deal with them.

'Spring Awakening' ostensibly centers on Melchior and Wendla; Erickson and Milne ease us through a developing relationship that dances from sweet to unsettling to sad. Their interactions are the foundation on which the rest of the show is constructed. Strong voices blend with childlike innocence to create a jarring juxtaposition. Theirs is an engaging love, despite being doomed from the start.

Rollins offers a nicely awkward counterpoint to the more self-assured Melchior. His journey might be the most well-defined of them all; we are forced into empathy as he bears us along on his sad descent. The barefoot Bohemian Ilse, played with brash fearlessness by Blaise Collette, stands out as well. And Nellie Kelly as Martha, alongside Collette and the rest of the cast, belts out perhaps the most aggressively moving song of the entire show, the chillingly powerful 'The Dark I Know Well.'

Of course, at its core, this show is about the ensemble. The world of this play is an off-kilter one a 19th century story wedded to 21st century songs. Real investment from every player on the stage is needed for there to be any hope of verisimilitude. The young girls, the schoolboys, even the adults ranging from cruel to clueless all add their own unique facets to the tale being told.

Director Tom Mikotowicz deserves credit for assembling a quality cast and tasking them with such a challenging piece of work. The world of adolescent sexuality is a minefield from which many of these players aren't so far removed Mikotowicz strikes a balance between the subtle and the overt. Music director Craig Ouellette has assembled a first-rate octet of an orchestra, providing not only the tunes behind the songs, but the backbeat of the production itself.

Scenic designer Dan Bilodeau has created a set that manages to be minimal while still feeling epic a feat no doubt aided by Shon Causer's high-octane lighting design. The two designs elevate each other, combining into something much greater than either individual aspect.

'Spring Awakening' is the best kind of academic theater both challenging and entertaining; credit to the School of Performing Arts for mounting a show that can offer lessons to performers and audience members alike.

('Spring Awakening' is playing at UMaine's Hauck Auditorium through Feb. 24. For tickets or more information, visit the School of Performing Arts website at umaine.edu/spa.)

Published in Happenings

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