February 21, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Hormonal harmonies
Austin VanDyke Colby, Hanschen, David Landstrom, Ernst, Spring Awakening, Olney Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Austin VanDyke Colby, left, as Hanschen, and David Landstrom as Ernst in the awkward moment when they realize their feelings for each other in ‘Spring Awakening’ at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo by Stan Barouh; courtesy Olney)

‘Spring Awakening’
Through March 10
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md.
$55-$63.50
301-924-3400
olneytheatre.org

If any teenagers ever had a right to be sullen, rebellious and angsty, it’s the kids in “Spring Awakening,” the Tony-winning Broadway rock musical now playing at Olney Theatre Center.

Like German playwright Frank Wedekind’s scandalous 1891 drama from which it’s adapted, the musical deals straightforwardly with sexual initiation, masturbation, teen pregnancy, botched abortion, homosexuality, physical abuse, sadomasochism and incest. And its young characters, almost all who are grappling with fears and questions about their burgeoning sexuality, are simply dismissed. They’re told by uptight, status-quo towing parents to hush up and follow rules.

Luckily, it’s a rock musical, so these stifled kids can let their emotions explode and reveal their inner voices through Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s memorable score whose tunes range from ballad to raging punk rock with names like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.” And though the show is set in Wedekind’s era, its score, the way its musical numbers are performed (well-mannered German school boys transform into untamed rock stars), and Sam Pinkleton’s convulsive, high jumping choreography, are wholly current.

The action begins with Wendla (Alyse Alan Louis) wearing the last of her childish frocks (compliments of top notch costume designer Sarah Beers). She pulls a very dour face and snaps a millionth self-portrait with her cell phone. The technology is today but her early teen self-preoccupation is timeless. Yet despite her age and curiosity, she still doesn’t know where babies come from — a state of ignorance her mother is in no rush to change. In the poignant “Mama Who Bore Me,” Louis as Wendla beautifully laments her mother’s lack of caring.

Looking for understanding, Wendla finds solace with boyhood friend Melchior (the excellent Matthew Kacergis), a smart and freethinking young idealist who rejects middle class hypocrisy and doesn’t believe in a god. He’s attracted to thoughtful Wendla, and what’s more he knows how babies are made (at least on paper) and is eager to do some guilt free experimentation. The pair begin meeting in a nearby uncorrupted wood and a trusty hayloft (suggested by a raised platform, random metal buckets and some scattered straw).

Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Parker Drown (who is gay) plays Melchior’s sad friend Moritz Stiefel. Drown is heartbreakingly good as the nervous and inept sidekick who is routinely referred to as the neurasthenic moron by his unfeeling teachers. Drown continues to be a young actor to look out for.

Other standouts in this terrific young ensemble playing hapless victims, survivors and collaborators include Maggie Donnelly as plucky Ilse, a schoolgirl who’s run away from an abusive home and gone bohemian. By necessity she lives outside the confines of society. Currently she’s found shelter at the local artists’ colony. Also, props to the impressively named Austin VanDyke Colby who displays comic flare as smug Hanschen. Clad in a nightshirt, he rather realistically pleasures himself during a song aptly titled “My Junk”; and later, he effortlessly seduces his love-struck study partner Ernst (David Landstrom) as they “huddle over Homer.”

The stable of adult characters — all effectively played by Ethan Watermeier and Liz Mamana — are monolithically close-minded or wicked with the exception of Melchior’s mother who comes off as comparably progressive. But even with her, when things become hairy she quickly squirms back into the safety of her middleclass, reactionary shell.

Backed by the silhouette of ominous denuded trees, Adrian Jones set is an open expanse of institutionally tiled floor and some metal chairs — the kind found in 21st century classrooms. The action is framed in bright, colored lights, nicely echoing director Steve Cosson’s exciting concert like staging.

Olney’s isn’t the angriest, loudest or most punked out production of “Spring Awakening” that you’ll ever see, but it’s well acted and thoughtfully produced. It’s also a prime opportunity to hear the show’s marvelous score played by a superb Christopher Youstra-led 10-person orchestra and sung by a very solid cast whose every single word can be clearly heard. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

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