Tuesday, January 28, 2020

review - SPRING AWAKENING - Greasepaint Youth Theatre

Ainsley Orozco and Riley Thornton
photo by Laura Durant
by Carolyn Thomas

Sex, rape, abuse, atheism, abortion, questioning authority, suicide, and a generous use of the 'fuck' word: it's the perfect combination for a youth production, right? Actually, it really is. In a youth theatre scene filled with censored and Jr. versions of adult shows (which isn't in itself a bad thing), it's utterly refreshing to see a youth production where teens are allowed free rein to tackle the many heavy issues they are most certainly exposed to. Greasepaint Youth Theatre's production of Spring Awakening does that and so much more, and it showcases some of the amazing talented youth we have in the valley. It's fun, funny, heart-wrenching (seriously, bring tissues), and as relevant as ever.

Based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening was adapted into a rock musical with music by Duncan Sheik and book/lyrics by Steven Sater in 2006. The original cast included now-big names like Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, Skylar Astin Lipstein, and John Gallagher Jr. in the lead roles. The musical won eight Tony Awards and the cast album won a Grammy.

The story centers around a group of teens in late 19th Century Germany, namely Wendla, Melchior, and Moritz and their friends. They struggle with the unquestionable authority of their rigid, religious schoolmasters, unyielding parental expectations, and lack of knowledge about the world around them. All the while, they struggle to navigate the pressures of adolescence, including many topics adults consider 'too mature' for them, both in the show and out of it. The roles are typically played by 20-somethings, which likely helps most audiences find the 'mature' themes more palatable despite the characters being teens, and the adult roles are typically played by a single man and woman.

As far as performances go, everyone involved deserves accolades. In the spirit of a concise review, only the biggest standouts will be mentioned, but there are many of those as well.

Ainsley Orozco plays the naive, sweet-hearted Wendla with a soft power and hauntingly lovely vocals. She's utterly perfect in this role, a delight on stage. Riley Thornton as the humbly suave Melchior has undeniable conviction in his role. He gives us depth, believable insecurity, and connects with the audience at every turn. George Nassar plays the eager, nervous Moritz with humor and heart. He's relatable and charming in his vulnerability, which makes his journey appropriately heart-breaking in all the right ways.

Kevin Wang, playing Hanschen and Rupert, is hilarious and fully committed through every beat. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand every time he had a chance to say anything, even with just his expression. Wang plays especially well off of Alex Flores as Ernst, the two of them are positively wonderful to watch together. Flores is adorably flustered in all the right ways. Liv Boscardin as Martha is soulful and compelling, Kori Schwarz is earnest as Thea, Elle Feinstein plays perfectly sweet and innocent as Anna, and completing the group as Ilse is Tatum Grell, who's positively engaging with soul and heart. The standout of the adult roles is Justus Popken, whose smooth voice and firm presence makes him a believable authority figure in Sonnestitch, Kaulback, and Schmidt.

Director Bob Sorenson, assisted by Casey Likes, brings this rock musical to life in a way that really lets every actor on stage shine and keeps the story moving at just the right pace. Their design elements bring together a measure of the expected aesthetic given the period and some inventive additions to keep it fresh. Musical Director Curtis Moeller deftly brings Duncan Sheik's melodies to life, though sadly due to some volume issues it was difficult to hear the full extent of his work over the instrumental tracks. Unfortunately, it was sometimes difficult to hear the actors singing at all over the tracks, which is regrettable given their incredible vocals.

Choreographer Johnna Watson also pairs the expected (for those familiar with the show) and the unexpected in a delicate balance that shows off the talent of this cast. Set design by Pete Bish and Chase Budden is simple and effective, it allows for freedom of movement and also quick scene changes to keep the show progressing without delays. Maureen Watson's prop design compliments the set, adding context with little details to place the audience firmly in each scene. Lighting by Stacey Walston is bright and as vibrant as the characters, though it isn't always consistent in terms of keeping the actors fully illuminated. Costumes by Diana Likes play perfectly to familiar audience expectations while still adding a personal touch that adds to the production, particularly in the final number.

A note to the audience: Take these actors seriously, and take the show itself seriously for the sake of the actors if nothing else. Opening night was lively, but the audience was far too eager to laugh at moments that were meant to be serious. Treating this like a 'kids show' is definitely not the way to go.

Greasepaint's Spring Awakening is a phenomenal showcase of creativity, talent, and raw emotion. Be prepared to laugh, to cry, and to get far more invested in a group of teenagers from the 1800s than you thought possible.

CLICK HERE for more information on this production, which runs through February 2

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