CenterStage Opens 100th Season With Resonant, Relevant ‘Spring Awakening’

The more things change, the more they stay the same. So says “Spring Awakening,” the rock musical that opens the season at CenterStage, which celebrates 100 years of theater at Louisville’s Jewish Community Center this year. With music by singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Stephen Sater, “Spring Awakening” blends the story of Frank Wedekind’s controversial German fin de siècle play of the same name with a contemporary rock soundtrack, compressing more than a century’s worth of still-relevant teen angst and sexual tension into one powerful show.

Directed by artistic director John R. Leffert with musical direction by Angie Hopperton and choreography by Zachary Boone,  “Spring Awakening” runs through August 17 at the Jewish Community Center. The original Broadway production opened in 2006 and won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, book and score. 

Set in a repressed provincial town in late-19th century Germany, “Spring Awakening” follows a group of young teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Wendla (Lauren McCombs) is an innocent dying to understand the mysteries of womanhood, while Melchior (the brooding Austin Lauer) is the burgeoning intellectual who denounces their “contemptible bourgeois society”— of course they’ll end up in each others’ arms in a strong first duet, “The Word of Your Body.” McCombs and Lauer share a crackling chemistry that bubbles over in a compelling, disturbing scene where Wendla begs Melchior to hit her so she can experience the pain a friend has suffered.

The brains of the class, Melchior also takes it upon himself to educate his underachieving, hormone-addled chum Moritz (Kyle Braun) on the mechanics of human sexuality. “Prepare yourself,” Melchior warns Moritz. “It made an atheist out of me.” Even armed with this knowledge, Melchior can’t keep himself or Wendla out of harm’s way, nor can he save Moritz, who suffers at the hands of the culture’s unforgiving academic system. A strong actor and stage presence, Braun infuses Moritz with a disarmingly nervous and kinetic charm, though his conventional voice doesn’t always meet the demands of Sheik’s rougher-rocking numbers like “Don’t Do Sadness.” Like any teens in time and space, all of the kids of this town are starving for intimate knowledge and experience, alternately sighing over erotic and romantic dreams and chafing under the oppressive rule of their parents, teachers and religious leaders (all adult roles played with aplomb by the versatile Michael Drury and Julie McGuffey).

Songs function as internal monologues, at times taking on quite dark tones, like when young Martha (Jessica Adamson) confesses her father’s physical and sexual abuse (“The Dark I Know Well”) in a duet with the disgraced Ilse (Marina Hart) in one of the strongest numbers in the show. Another strong number features CenterStage regular Jordan Price as the louche Hänschen seducing his tremulous classmate Ernst (Andrew Hughes) in a winking reprise of Melchior’s and Wendla’s first duet. Standout company numbers include the boys’ tightly-choreographed “The B***h of Living” and the anthemic “Totally F****ed.”

Even for the professional Broadway tours, sound design can be a mixed bag in rock musicals.  In this production, the sound quality fluctuates. At times, Bernie Abner’s sound design blends the company’s voices seamlessly, but in some solos and duets, the technology seems to be working against the performers, amplifying them to the point of losing their voices’ natural subtleties and above the volume necessary for the smallish theater. Maybe it depends on where you sit, though in a general admission theater, that can be difficult to control.

Consider “Spring Awakening” an “R”-rated show for nudity, strong language, sexual situations and serious adult themes, but it should also be considered required viewing for teenagers and their caregivers. Though it’s a period piece, the themes still resonate. “Spring Awakening” explores timeless serious subjects like suicide, sexual abuse and pregnancy with a sensitivity and emotional intelligence both cautionary and totally respectful of its primary audience. For those who want to continue the conversation, CenterStage will host a discussion moderated by therapeutic professionals after the closing matinee (Sunday, August 17 at 2 p.m.) where they invite teenagers to discuss issues they face in the 21st century. Participants can tweet questions/comments to @jccCenterStage or tag them #TeenAwakening, or submit them anonymously on provided cards at every performance.

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