People today may be familiar with Spring Awakening, the hit rock musical from 2006 that solidified many a Broadway career and launched Lea Michele into the spotlight pre-Glee. What people may not be familiar with is the source for the Sheik/Sater musical: the play Spring's Awakening by Frank Wedekind. Even more surprising? Wedekind wrote that play in the late 1800s and it debuted in New York almost 90 years before the rock musical. The surprises do not stop there with Marvell Repertory Theatre's fresh and bold new production of the Wedekind play (translated by Eric Bentley) as part of their "Burned and Banned" themed season, which officially opened Sunday, October 14 at TBG Theater and runs through November 4.
Spring's Awakening focuses on the adolescents in an 1890s German provincial town. Philosophizing top student Melchior Gabor and his academically inferior best friend Moritz Stiefel, along with their peers, are beginning to feel sexually curious. While Melchior understands the mechanics of sex, Moritz needs Melchior to teach him but is overwhelmed by puberty and the facts of life. Meanwhile, their classmate Wendla Bergmann begs her mother to teach her where babies come from, but her mother cannot bring herself to share the information. This secrecy and sexual repression, along with misunderstandings and a heavy dose of raging adolescent hormones turns the town upside down. The result is a cautionary tale that touches on several themes including sexuality, abuse, rape, suicide, and abortion, among others.
The set is the first glimpse we have of the town. Versatile slate-gray plank walls and floor (by Tijana Bjelajac) look like a cabin and serves as school room, cottage, woods, and more by adding minimal furniture and flower petals. The mostly unadorned black-and-white costumes (by Susan Nester) are appropriately stifling and old-fashioned. As the play continues, the haunting shadows (by Nicholas Houfek) complete the perfect environs.
Thanks to the moody set, Marvell Rep's production is far more realistic than the rock musical, but it is equally as fresh and even more daring. It features stellar performances from a talented young cast which is just about as close to age-appropriate as audiences will ever see; even the Broadway musical used young adults in their very late teens to early twenties to portray the roles of adolescents about fourteen years old. Using such a young cast makes the play very raw and realistic.
Leading the cast is Giuseppe Bausilio as Melchior. At fifteen, Bausilio is one of the youngest cast members and is making his New York straight play debut, but he captivates the audience and commands the stage with the calm power of a seasoned veteran. Surely his other performance experience has prepared him: he was most recently seen by theatergoers as the title role in Billy Elliot (Chicago, national tour, and finally Broadway), and his dance skills have earned him second place in Youth America Grand Prix. No longer a boy playing Billy, Bausilio's Melchior is a suave alpha male who takes his friend under his wing and feels confident in his atheistic beliefs. He is able to portray Melchior as both cocky with a commanding power over his friends as well as emotionally vulnerable and desperate - in other words, as a realistic, hormonal, confused teenager who grows emotionally, socially, sexually, and spiritually throughout the play.
As confident and knowledgeable as Melchior is, Wendla and Moritz are both innocent and unsure. Lizzy DeClement (CBS's NYC 22) portrays Wendla as a sweet girl who is just learning about the dangers and darkness in the world. She shows wide-eyed wonder and giggly laughter with her friends and mother just as easily as shrieks of terror. Similarly flexible in his role as Moritz, Dalton Harrod ('Patrick' in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular) illustrates the confusion and fear that all teens go through, especially when dealing with strange new feelings.
The supporting young cast members are all exceptionally talented and director Lenny Leibowitz (also Marvell Rep's Artistic Director) has superbly focused their talents to produce realistic performances all-around. Even when dealing with such heavy subject matter, their performances feel natural and unforced, and never once do they seem to be overacting or going for an easy laugh. The play is surprisingly funny, with the most comedic scenes being those that are simply glimpses at growing up. A cute scene between Wendla and her mom (Anne Newhall) seems like it is from today's world of mini skirts and short shorts. Harrod's expressive face earns him laughs for showing such disgust towards sex as well as being a lovesick puppy dog for Melchior's mom (Rosalinda Perron). But, the one who nearly steals the show is Steven Braunstein (as Hanschen Rilow) who keeps the audience laughing throughout his entire solo scene.