Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Spring Awakening’ moving in Manitowoc

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Sad beauty.

University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” rises to sad beauty.

It’s the epilogue, and the sad beauty is present in layers.

+ The orchestra in the rear of the stage plays lyrically.

+ Visually, black and gray dominate.

+ Much of the company sweeps into a dual performance, singing in voice and in the physical flow of American sign language. The poetic musicality in the words is enhanced by unison choreography of those words illustrated by human motion of hands, arms, body and facial expression.

+ Focal is a young man, now with his idealism thoroughly battered.

+ One effect of this audio-visual panorama is an attempt at comforting him.

+ Context is another layer. So much has happened to the young man and those around him that all seems like cold, dark midnight. In this amalgam of a song, the creators shine a ray of hope so the audience won’t go home wholly depressed.

That’s one interpretation.

***

Creative: Source – Frank Wedekind play “Spring Awakening,” 1891; Book and lyrics – Steven Sater; music – Duncan Sheik; director, scenic design – Michael Sheeks; assistant director, stage manager – Hannah Otto; musical director – Erin Renae LaFond; choreographer – Kevin Sievert; technical director – Jeff LaFond; lighting design – Jake Jaquart

Cast: Melchior – David Colton; Wendla – Hilary Mayer; Moritz – Zach Glaeser; Thea – Isabella Becker; Bobby – Kana Coonce; Georg – Phillip Jindra; Mariana – Grace Kolb; Ilse – Tessa Komorowski; Ernst – Sam Schoepp; Martha – Katie Sievert; Otto – Sean Stalvey; Anna – Shannon Wadzinski; Hanschen – Spencer Wrolson; Herr Knochenbuch, Father Kaulbach, Schmidt – David Bowman; Frau Gabor, Frau Bessell – Emilee Carroll; Herr Sonnenstich – Mel Johnson; Frau Berman, Frau Knuppeldick, Frau Grossebustenhalter; Herr Stiefel, Herr Gabor, Doctor – Michael Sheeks

Orchestra: Keyboard – Erin Renae LaFond; violin – Monica Hrudik; guitar – Keith Krumrich; drums – Dylan Jonnston; bass – Kameron Kitzerow

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 4; 2 p.m. Nov. 5

Info: manitowoc.uwc.edu/arts/theatre

***

“Spring Awakening” is a piece of work. To get to the sad beauty, the path is strewn with sexual confusion, sexual abuse, violence, rigid authoritarianism, ramrod-tight tenets, gratification from pain, naivety, sexual variety, misunderstanding, suicide, mistrust and warped sense of rectitude.

The story comes from the 1890s, from Germany, with that society and mindset transformed into the current-day rock idiom and street language to boot.

That doesn’t sound like the makings of a Broadway Tony-winning Best Musical, but the “show” won that award.

The “show” says something, notably about the price of sexual repression.

This production has its hang-ups, not in content but in the aural delivery. Sometimes singers use hand-held microphones, sometimes not. Many performers seem to have wireless microphone systems, yet the volume dial seems set low. Sometimes, lines seem to be spoken or sung with no audio boost. The overall effect, at least on me, is Huh?

The cast comes from the campus and, mostly, the community. Experience is abundant, with key roles keenly played.

David Colton creates a haunting Melchior, the central character. Melchior has the world figured out, down to an illustrated essay on how human procreation works. Along with vocalizing with finesse, Colton is immersed in the nuances of Melchior’s brainy sensitivity. However, the answers Melchior has, others in his life don’t.

Hilary Mayer is the innocent Wendla, whose yearning to know what’s happening with her developing body – and what happens when all systems are go – is door-slam shut off by her mother. When Wendla and Melchior make their discoveries, Wendla still is clueless (a little stretch of credibility on the part of the authors). Mayer paints poetry with her voice, which is soft.

Zach Glaeser is the catalytic figure, Moritz. Melchior, his friend, literally draws pictures to help Moritz figure stuff out. But Moritz is overall dense, and failure is not an option to his father. Glaeser captures Moritz’s torn feelings in intense songs and scenes, notably with spirited Ilse, who provides color in song through the luster of Tessa Komorowski’s voice.

Director Michael Sheeks and his creative team have a committed cast that puts together the 1,000 pieces of this production with earnest care. The school-age characters become part dance ensemble and part choir, all the while developing individuality in personalities.

The story includes a representation of coupling, male-to-male kisses, the f-bomb in song and more (not in the realm of decorum in general-audience writing). To toss an “R” rating on it is somewhat misleading, but “Spring Awakening” certainly spans mature topics.

Saturday night’s performance prompted a standing ovation.

***

Songs

Act I

“Mama Who Bore Me” – Wendla

“Mama Who Bore Me” (Reprise) – Wendla and Girls

“All That’s Known” – Melchior

“The B(lank) of Living” – Moritz, Melchior and Boys

“My Junk” – Girls and Boys

“Touch Me” – Boys and Girls

“The Word of Your Body” – Wendla and Melchior

“The Dark I Know Well” – Martha, Ilse and Boys

“And Then There Were None” – Moritz and Boys

“The Mirror-Blue Night” – Melchior and Boys

“I Believe” – Boys and Girls

Act II

“The Guilty Ones” – Wendla, Melchior, Boys and Girls

“Don’t Do Sadness” – Moritz

“Blue Wind” – Ilse

“Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind (Reprise)” – Moritz and Ilse

“Left Behind” – Melchior, Boys and Girls

“Totally (Blank)ed” – Melchior and Full Company (except Moritz)

“The Word of Your Body” (Reprise 2) – Hanschen, Ernst, Boys and Girls

“Whispering” – Wendla

“Those You’ve Known” – Moritz, Wendla and Melchior

“The Song of Purple Summer” – Ilse and Full Company

***

NEXT: “A Christmas Carol,” Dec. 16, 17.

THE VENUE: Opened in 2001 as part of Lakeside Hall, University Theatre on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc is a handsome space seating 325. The space has a wide-angle feel. Gray is one prominent color; it’s in squares of acoustical material in the ceiling and on the side and rear walls. Wood, chiefly light toned, also is prominent in areas of framework and on the front of the raised stage. The stage is a hybrid; while it has proscenium (flat-front), a space in front of that bellies out toward the seating area. The seats are of a metallic blue-gray material with black hard plastic backs. Aisle carpeting is taupe with a thick barb wire pattern in white running through. Along with a main seating area, there are sets of box seats with nine seats on both sides near the front. Leg room is super-ample. Overall look: Inviting. Lakeside Hall is a literal name. Lake Michigan is a few hundred yards away.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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