April 8, 2013

The Dark They Know Well: Spring Awakening at Ithaca College

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When I got to Clark Theater at Ithaca College on Friday night, I expected a musical — something with good music and a melodramatic plot. Instead, Spring Awakening was an experience, something refreshing and personal. Based on Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, which was first performed to shock in 1906, Spring Awakening was converted to a rock-musical for Broadway in 2006. Starring Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, the musical won eight Tony Awards. This month, Ithaca College students performed the musical.

Spring Awakening is set in late 19th century Germany, when a group of teenage school mates balance their rigorous educational training, familial expectations and confusing sexual desires in a bourgeois society based in emotional denial and repression. In the throes of emotional confusion, Wendla Bergmann (Sara Charles) starts a relationship with the rebellious Melchior Gabor (Coleman Hemsath) and nervous Moritz Stiefel (Johnny Shea) grapples with sexual conflict and passing his exams. The results are confusion, stress, love, sex, suicide, pregnancy and ultimately death. The musical goes out of its way to shine a light on taboo subjects like masturbation, familial abuse and abortion. Structured in two acts, Spring Awakening moves between dark and revealing narrative and emotion-filled alternative rock ballads.

Director Norm Johnson took an entirely fresh take on the musical. The staging at Clark Theater, where the show was performed, is unique — the audience sits surrounding the stage on all four sides. As a result, no one in the audience was ever far away from the actors on stage — I was personally bumped by two of them. I was close enough to see Wendla tie Martha’s (Celeste Rose) dress on the sides of the theater and Melchior whispering the words of a song, which only increased the intimacy of the performance. The attention to small details like the chalking on the ground and purposeful costume choices down to the sock, gave the musical a realistic feel on a microcosmic level. I felt more like I was watching a movie than attending any musical production I’d ever been to.

The intimacy that the staging created was especially important in the scope of the Spring Awakening’s sensitive themes. This musical felt truly alive, each characters struggle was real. This production did it right. Acting shouldn’t be about creating a distance or an image: It shouldn’t be about setting the actors on a stage above everyone else and keeping audience at a distance. Musicals should be like this one — concerned with expressing something complicated, honest and intimate with skill and practice.

The stories of the characters in Spring Awakening are ones that anyone can relate to. The tragedy of a character’s demise and the way we watch what unfolds in the aftermath is fraught with both happiness and intense sadness. In one of the darker subplots, a girl is forced to admit that her own father sexually abuses her. The moment raised questions of friendship, intimacy and asks why we express so little of our strongest feelings. Spring Awakening holds its middle finger up at society over a soundtrack of wailing guitars and catchy melodies. It shows that the darkest elements of sexuality can be a rewarding despite its taboo nature and that fear may be even darker than the problems we may face.

I never saw the Broadway run of Spring Awakening, but I can say that this version was clear, clever, well paced, interesting and well staged. The combination of the story, the acting, and the theater make it what theater should always be: an experience.

Original Author: Meredith Joyce