Spring Awakening is a misleadingly cheery title for the Tony Award-winning musical New World School of the Arts premiered last night at the Colony Theater. Teen suicide, incest, and abortion make us think the original play's alternate title, A Children's Tragedy, might have been a better fit.
But it did have some remarkable bright spots, not the least of which was its shockingly talented cast. The young thespians fearlessly tackled some seriously provocative material, convincingly channeled grumpy middle-aged German school teachers, and sang in pure, rich tones that seemed to make time stop.
The original play, composed by Frank Wedekind, criticized the sexually
oppressive culture of 19th century Germany by illustrating with brutal
honesty the clash between natural teenage sexual urges and the rigid
rules and lack of education imposed by adult authorities. After
Columbine in 1999, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik adapted the play into a
rock opera that reflects issues affecting teens today.
The play is set inside a stuffy, high pressure private school, where boys wear uniforms of knickers and high socks, and all the girls look like members of the ensemble cast from Annie in long, shapeless dresses in muted tones.
The set was minimal, consisting mainly of a clean black stage, accented occasionally by bells or lights that floated down from the rafters or platforms that lifted from the floorboards to rise above the stage. Near the back curtain sat the band, their sheet music and their faces lit by little desk lamps. Violin, viola, cello, electric guitars, drums, and synthesizer expertly accompanied every poetic song of the production.
Among the stars of the cast was Gerardo Pelati, who played Moritz, a confused young man with a faux hawk and a whole lot of sexual frustration. The actor's explosive movements made him incredibly attractive on stage as he crooned about "The Bitch of Living" and being "Totally Fucked," along with the rest of his brightly complected and angry male classmates. Whether salivating over a friend's description of a vulva or taking crushing criticism from his father, Pelati conveyed all of his character's changing moods with equal credibility.
Moritz's best friend Melchior, played by Ryan Jacobs, was noticeably taller than many of his classmates, an attribute that matched the character's precocious intelligence. Among his standout scenes was one where he describes to Moritz how a woman feels during sex, followed by a song called "Touch Me," during which the school girls erotically touch themselves through their layered night gowns. In another, he slickly seduces his love object Wendla (Elaine Flores) on a raised platform surrounded by a chorus of classmates, a clergyman (Devon Dassau) spitting a sermon over the scene all the while.
Flores was a pleasure to watch, but even more fun to listen to. Her songs, including "The Word of Your Body" and "Whispering," were sung with powerful clarity. In a scene where her mother scolds her for bringing shame to the family, her twisted faces and perfectly timed cries presented a mesmerizing portrait of an angst-ridden teen.
Other highlights: Matthew Gordon's portrayal of Hanschen, a delightfully arrogant boy who kisses his awe struck male classmate; and anything sung by Jessica Sanford, who played the whorish Ilse. Her incredible voice completely shut out all other sensory information. Not to be cliche, but yes, we literally had chills.
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Emotionally powerful, sometimes funny, and sadly pertinent, this play was brimming with talented, mesmerizing performers from end to end. The New World School of the Arts has brought youthful energy and grade A talent to this envelope-pushing musical.
Catch the second and last performances at the Colony Theater tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. respectively. Tickets cost $15 to $20. Go to the NWSA website or call 305-237-3541.