June 14, 2012 | by Brian T. Carney
Heat of the moment

‘Spring Awakening’
Keegan Theatre
Church Street Theatre
1742 Church Street, NW
Through July 8
$40, $35 students/seniors

The cast of Keegan Theatre’s production of ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Keegan)

Surprisingly, it’s a plaintive ballad that haunts both acts of “Spring Awakening,” the explosive trail-breaking rock musical now onstage in an excellent production by the Keegan Theatre. “The Word of Your Body” is sung by two pairs of young lovers who are about to dive into the dangerous and mysterious world of sex. With a fascinating blend of naiveté and awareness, they sing, “O, I’m gonna be wounded. O, I’m gonna be your wound.”

In Act One, it’s sung by Melchior and Wendla; in Act Two it’s sung by Hanschen and Ernst. In an unusual twist, it’s the straight couple and not the gay couple who come to a tragic end.

“Spring Awakening” is based on a controversial play by the remarkable German playwright Frank Wedekind. Although written in 1891, the play was not performed until 1906 and has since had a long history of censorship as it deals frankly with complex issues of sexual and intellectual awakening, adolescent rebellion, sadomasochism, political and intellectual repression, suicide, abortion, sexual abuse, gender and homosexuality.

The plot centers on Melchior Gabor (Vincent Kempski), a charismatic and intelligent teen rebel, his innocent but curious girlfriend Wendla (Ali Hoxie) and his tormented best friend Mortiz Steifel (Paul Scanlan). While Melchior and his classmates (including Hanschen and Ernst) deal with oppressive schoolmasters and uncontrolled sexual yearnings, Wendla and her friends deal with parental abuse and neglect.

Indie musicians Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) have turned this 1891 German drama into a contemporary rock musical with exceptional ingenuity and creativity. Sheik and Sater wisely keep most of the plot intact and keep the action in its original time period. However, as the teenagers express their inner feelings, their inner rock stars erupt, electric guitars serving as a timeless expression of teen angst. The concept works really well and the show deservedly swept the 2007 Tony Awards.

Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea handle this challenging material with great finesses and sensitivity, guiding the talented cast through their scenes with an effective blend of comedy and tragedy. The musical staging is generally fluid and eye-catching as the cast moves from the relative still of the book scenes to the explosive outbursts of the songs. Musical Director Jake Null gets great instrumental performances from a superb 10-piece band and outstanding vocal performances from powerhouse singers with exceptional range and diction.

The cast is uniformly strong, with outstanding performances from Nora Palka as Ilsa and Charlotte Akin as the Adult Women. Palka’s rich voice brings great poignancy to songs where she tells about horrible sexual abuse (“The Dark I Know Well”) and where she tries to save the suicidal Moritz (“Blue Wind”), but she also shines when she leads the cast in the moving finale (“The Song of Purple Summer”). Akin is delightful in several small roles, showing great comic flair as a busty piano teacher and a mean schoolmistress, severe earnestness as Wendla’s mother and deeply moving sensitivity as Melchior’s sympathetic mother.

There are, unfortunately, a few missteps (quite literally) in this otherwise fine production. The choreography by Kurt Boehm sometimes undermines the delicate balance between the period setting and the contemporary rock score; fluttery hand gestures, cartwheels and moves from Michael Jackson videos feel out of place. The direction of the three-member ensemble is also rather awkward. The switch from teenagers to angels of death clutters the final scene and their costuming and blocking is frequently distracting.

While most cultural venues have already slipped into more escapist summer fare, Keegan Theatre deserves a round of applause for ending their season with more challenging material. LGBT audiences will find “Spring Awakening,” with its positive portrayal of homosexuality and complex depictions of sexual politics, especially rewarding.

 

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