Remember how you first learned about "the birds and the bees"? My enlightenment came from a fifth-grade classmate who sequestered a book about sex from her progressive parents' shelf and shared the "forbidden fruits" with the rest of us.
The secrecy and mystery surrounding puberty and sexuality in my
coming-of-age amusingly came to mind while watching "Spring Awakening," a terrific musical about the turbulent journey from adolescence to adulthood thrilling audiences, including this reviewer, at Beck Center. It runs through Sunday, March 4.
Based on the controversial 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the story traces the agony and ecstasy of adolescent sexual awakening in late 19th-century German society, where the subject remains taboo, shrouded in silence and ignorance.
This landmark 2007 musical, which captured a slew of Tony awards including Best Musical, is like nothing you have ever seen before. Steven Sater's brilliant book and biting lyrics, coupled with Duncan Sheik's ravishing pop rock score is bold, brave and entirely new. Due to language and
sexual content, the show is not recommended for children.
The win-win collaboration between Beck and Baldwin-Wallace College's musical theater program, a first, sent ripples of magic throughout the two-hour show that I didn't want to see end.
"Spring Awakening" breaks new dramatic ground in its raw, provocative, and frank exploration of such troubling social issues as sexual abuse, rape, incest, suicide and teen pregnancy.
Victoria Bussert's mesmerizing direction, a large cast of 17 fiercely
talented bright lights from her B-W musical theater program, plus two of Cleveland's finest professional actors - Scott Plate and Laura Perrotta - playing all the adult roles is matched by a peerless creative design team.
A large, low-lying platform occupies the mostly bare proscenium. Characters remain on stage throughout, either as participants or as sidelined spectators to the unfolding action, making for seamless scene transitions.
Jeff Herrmann's witty schoolroom setting includes a series of large blackboards suspended from the fly, filled with chalk illustrations about the biology of sex.
The musicians, situated at the rear of the stage, become an organic part of the show. Conductor Ryan Fielding Garrett at the keyboard and the orchestra summon the score's rich sounds with verve. Even though the plot is set in the 19th century, the songs are in the contemporary pop rock idiom. This novel juxtaposition linking the two centuries perfectly serves the universal and timeless theme. When singing, the boys and girls morph into modern teens. The musical numbers serve as interior monologues for the characters' innermost thoughts, like soliloquies set to song.
The time frame is highlighted by Alison Garrigan's period costumes: school uniforms for the boys, dowdy frocks for the girls. Herrmann's variegated lighting magically differentiates past and present.
The story centers on three main characters: the brilliant and freethinking Melchior (Zach Adkins), who questions everything; the horny, high-strung Moritz (James Penca), so obsessed by his troubling nocturnal dreams about a woman's legs in red stockings that he can't concentrate on anything; and the innocent, naïve Wendla (Kyra Kennedy), who is still being told by her mother that babies come from the stork.
Kennedy is terrific as Wendla, who laments that her mother gave her "no way to handle things" in the opening number "Mama Who Bore Me." She wants to know where babies come from, but her mother cannot bring herself to tell her the "facts of life," with tragic consequences.
Wedekind's play was subtitled "A Children's Tragedy." In the libretto's preface, Sater says his show makes its point from the start - that the seeds of the entire tragedy are sown by this willful act of silence by a parent failing to talk honestly to her child about sex.
Adkins is outstanding as Melchior, who rejects the narrow-mindedness of school and society in "All That's Known," a song in which the rest of the boys move in unison like automatons in Gregory Daniels's startling choreography.
With his unruly shock of upright hair, Penca is perfect as the nervous, pent-up Moritz, dealing with his raging hormones. In "The Bitch of Living," Moritz leads the boys in acting out their sexual frustrations and desires.
"The Word of Your Body" is a gorgeous melody in which Melchior and Wendla discover their mutual attraction for one another. Bussert's exquisite direction of their blossoming love is breathtaking.
Plate and Perrotta are a bit over-the-top as headmaster and headmistress of the boys' and girls' schools, turning these two into loony caricatures. However, each is quite effective in his or her respective parental roles. Andrea Leach and Clare Howes Einsentrout create moving portraits of Ilse and Martha, both victims of domestic abuse (including sexual abuse). Nick Varricchio is the suave Hanschen, who easily seduces the naïve Ernst (Chris Cowan) in his first encounter with love in a homoerotic relationship.
The play takes on the tragic overtones of a young Romeo and Juliet, victims of a repressive culture consumed by guilt and shame. It's a coming-of-age story, whereby Melchior learns, through suffering, to listen to the workings of his heart as well as his mind.
"I'm in love with this show," enthused a young patron at intermission. So am I!
WHAT: "Spring Awakening"
WHERE: The Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through March 4
TICKETS & INFO: 216-521-2540, ext.10, or www.beckcenter.org
* Strong language and partial nudity; recommended for adult audiences 17 and older.