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“Trust me, there are only three ways a man can go. He can let the status quo defeat him...” a German teenager drawls, “He can rock the boat ... and be expelled. Or he can bide his time, and let the System work for him—like me.” This line from Duncan Sheik's and Steven Stater’s “Spring Awakening” not only applies to the trajectories of the characters in Frank Wedekind's original 1892 play, but also aptly describes the philosophy of the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of the musical. The show, directed by Brandon J. Ortiz ’12 and Ryan P. Halprin ’12 and running from November 30 to December 5, falters due to a lack of chemistry between the main pairing, and it unsuccessfully attempts to “rock the boat” by staging the play at OBERON. But the musical is redeemed by relying on the mainstays of traditional theater: the quality of the individual acting, the implementation of the score, and the choreography.
“Spring Awakening” chronicles the blossoming of a group of 19th-century German youths by focusing on budding intellectual force Melchior Gabor (Jonathan K. Stevens ’14) and his experimentation with the flowering yet sexually naïve Wendla Bergmann (Anna J. Mitran ’13). Stevens embodies the handsome, seemingly secure Melchior with skill; he slips into diary diatribes about the bourgeoisie and adult society with passion and angst. Similarly, Mitran plays Wendla with appropriate wide-eyed curiosity and sadness, particularly during “Mama who Bore me,” an appeal for education about her sexuality. However, all of the tension built up by the angst-ridden Stevens and Mitran about their respective woes goes nowhere during their duets. At the end of the first act, when Stevens and Mitran have sex to the incredibly hopeful “I Believe,” both seem to be in a sort of autopilot that diminishes the sense of awakening that is meant to characterize the scene.
Part of the difficulty in creating chemistry might be explained by the show's intricate staging plans, which prove burdensome to implement. OBERON prides itself on being a venue that lends itself to innovative performances, but the space cannot create a more immersive experience when lighting and sound falter. The actors' microphones fail to turn on when they begin to sing at least two dozen times during the performance, and their initial lighting is similarly lacking. These missteps create a confused, swiveling audience who can’t hear voices from characters they see and can’t see characters whose voices they hear. Alongside these blunders, actors repeatedly and gratuitously climb up and down the OBERON's various staircases—a habit that becomes especially frustrating when characters trip on blocks or run out of breath by the time they reach their destinations. There is a sense that the actors are constantly asking themselves where they have to be at the moment.
However, despite these flaws, “Spring Awakening” has a slew of excellent scenes—notably Moritz Stiefel’s (Noah J. Madoff ’12) bitter post-school-expulsion number “I Don’t Do Sadness” coupled with the reply and duet of Moritz’s could-have-been love interest and bohemian artist Ilse (Amelia H. Ross ’14) in “Blue Wind.” Likewise, Ernst (Patrick J. Wicker '13) and Hanschen (Peter H. Manges '15) demonstrate excellent chemistry in their scene together, in which a chaste kiss somehow manages to say more than the minutes of fondling earlier in the play.
Moreover, the musical and vocal prowess of the company is commendable. When unmarred by microphone malfunctions, the songs are executed with passion and cohesion. The group numbers, especially “The Bitch of Living,” and “Totally Fucked,” draw inspiration from the original staging of the musical, but also showcase Halprin’s own choreography. When the cast is not hindered by odd staging they make effective use of the space, as students bound on and off the stage with infectious enthusiasm.
The set and costume design of the show is also very well thought out. All of the characters are in matching 19th-century suits and old-fashioned dresses, which highlight how the characters are expected to conform to the outdated and conservative views of their parents.
Despite technical failures and an unfortunate lack of chemistry between its leads, “Awakening” impresses with its energetic execution of the music and provocative choreography. “Spring Awakening” doesn’t really “rock the boat,” but the quality of the individual actors' performances still provides for a fulfilling musical experience.
- Staff Writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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