‘Spring Awakening’ rocks on in Porchlight staging despite some singing, acting missteps
Brenda Didier’s production is mostly solid, but, amid moments of soaring sublimity, the ensemble struggles with the score’s substantial musical demands.
It’s been a quarter century since the coming-of-age rock musical “Spring Awakening” swept the Tony Awards. But in Porchlight Music Theatre’s revival of Duncan Sheik (composer) and Steven Sater’s (book) adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama, one thing remains inarguable: Killer numbers like “Totally F*****” and “The B**** of Living” will resonate powerfully as long as humans experience anger, frustration, heartbreak and unfairness.
In director/choreographer Brenda Didier’s staging, that brutal relevance shines through despite uneven vocals and some egregiously over-the-top acting.
When: Through June 2
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
Run time: Two hours, including one 10-minute intermission.
Didier’s production is mostly solid, but, amid moments of soaring sublimity, the ensemble struggles with the score’s substantial musical demands, particularly the male roles.
The plot follows Wendla (Maya Lou Hlava), a smart, inquisitive teenager who hasn’t the faintest idea how babies are made despite being an aunt twice over. She pleads with her mother for information, but she’s met with the uncertain implication that nice girls and proper women never speak of such things.
Wendla and precocious schoolmate Melchior (Jack DeCesare) fall in love and dream of a future in which their children aren’t punished for asking questions.
Subplots underscore the story’s exploration of lethal hypocrisy and rigid narrow-mindedness. Ilse (Tiffany T. Taylor) is an incest survivor thrown out of the house after reporting her father. Moritz Stiefel (Quinn Kelch) is devastated beyond repair when told he’s failed his final exams.
Sheik’s score is rich in snarling, growling rock-and-roll angst, amplified by microphones the characters wield like weapons, and choreography that’s more Rolling Stones-in-an-arena than 1890s small-town Germany. Porchlight gets the growls and snarls, the pitch less so; ramping up the volume does not mask sour notes.
And conductor Justin Akira Kono’s six-piece band is spread too thin. Despite the impassioned performances of the musicians, there’s a tinniness to the sound.
But Porchlight’s production also shines. The ensemble’s a cappella blend is gorgeous. Its delivery of the text has a crystalline clarity.
As Wendla, Hlava captures both the joy and the restless discontent of a young woman constricted by societal expectations that allow no room for variation. From the bitter demands of “Mama Who Bore Me” to the glimmering hope of “Whispering,” Hlava conveys the full emotional spectrum.
Alas, DeCesare is miscast as the upstart Melchior. DeCesare reads more early 30s than late teens, and his command of the score’s upper-register demands is shaky. Kelch’s Moritz also struggles. He’s part Billy Idol, part Jim Carrey, both dialed up to 11 throughout and bringing Moritz within a whisker of cartoon territory.
Then, there’s John Marshall Jr. as the outwardly suave, secretly defiant Hanschen. Marshall’s remarkably high falsetto is stunning, his bone-dry, comic timing a highlight. There are plenty of doomed teenagers in “Spring Awakening,” but Marshall’s Hanschen — think Oscar Wilde meets George Michael — is determined not to be among them.
Taylor’s Ilse brings a rich, robust tragedy of “The Dark I Know Well,” and, in its repetitive, final refrain, she and Ariana Burks’ Martha deliver a power surge of hopeless rage that’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
As the Adult Men and Women, McKinley Carter and Michael Joseph Mitchell effectively move from diabolically heartless (the school officials) to concerned (Melchior’s mom) to fatally misguided (Moritz’s dad).
Nobody on stage is helped by Patrick Chan’s lighting design, which features a distracting array of disco-like effects that blink on and off in various colors, beams of blue shooting up through the floor during one particularly climactic moment.
Costume designer Bill Morey’s cottage-core prairie dresses and awkward knee breeches credibly lend the cast a late 19th century air. Christopher Rhoton’s minimalist set design, framed by cut-out trees, showcases Didier’s expressive choreography.
“Spring Awakening’s” depictions of sexuality walk a thin line between comedy, profundity and tragedy. And intimacy designer Kristina Fluty doesn’t falter so much as a breath.
“Spring Awakening” is about harrowing, not happy, endings. Despite its missteps, there’s transcendence and beauty in Porchlight’s timely take.
NOTE: The production arrives as “Spring Awakening” experiences a resurgence in pop culture: On Tuesday, HBO airs “Those You’ve Known,” a documentary exploring how a 19th century German play became a 21st century rock musical that broke ground with its intentionally anachronistic score and its depictions of sex.