Master director Richard Israel joins Cal State Fullerton choreography whiz William F. Lett and CSUF’s phenomenally talented Musical Theater BFA majors for as fine a production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening as any professional theater could hope to present.
Like Frank Wedenkind’s 1891 German-language drama Frühlings Erwachen on which it is based, the 2006 Broadway musical smash breaks plenty of ground itself with its depiction of on-and/or-offstage masturbation, child abuse, bondage, rape, abortion, and suicide among 14-year-olds just now awakening to their sexuality.
In addition to its two teen heroes, the handsome, popular, self-confident Melchior (Brian Whitehill) and his introverted, inhibited, wet-dream-plagued classmate Moritz (Rubén J. Carbajal), and its heroine, the all-too-innocent but no less sexually inquisitive girl-next-door Wendla (Alexis Ritchey), Spring Awakening The Musical introduces us to Melchior and Moritz’s ever-horny classmates and Wendla’s equally randy girlfriends, while a pair of older (or at CSUF “older”) actors stand in for all the adults in these teens’ lives.
What made Spring Awakening work so brilliantly on Broadway was not just Sater’s streamlining of Wedekind’s melodramatic storylines. Singer-songwriter-pop star Sheik’s catchy alternative rock score, the likes of which has probably never before been heard on a Broadway stage, and Bill T. Jones’ brilliantly innovative choreography together turned Spring Awakening into a mainstream (and cult) international phenomenon.
The show begins quietly, with sexually burgeoning Wendla wondering if she’ll ever be told the truth about man-woman relations in “Mama Who Bore Me,” followed by a very funny sequence in which her highly embarrassed mother avoids the question entirely, an omission which proves ultimately disastrous.
The song then takes on a rock beat as Wendla’s girlfriends join her in a reprise, leading us to Melchior and Moritz in Latin class, the former attempting to rescue the latter from the ire of their monster of a teacher when the burning need to express what’s going on inside their minds and bodies suddenly erupts into the first rock-concert chords of “The Bitch Of Living,” which depicts in song and dance every adolescent urge just bursting to break free.
Spring Awakening’s other big showstopper is Act Two’s “Totally Fucked,” which has the entire cast contorting as if their sexual wants and their dissatisfaction with the world around them were ants crawling all over their bodies and driving them insane with desire, anger, and frustration.
Spring Awakening’s quieter moments feature some of Sheik and lyricist Sater’s most memorable compositions. The Pink Floyd-esque “Touch Me,” in which the youthful cast of characters express their desire for intimate physical contact; the anthem-like “I Believe,” which sets the stage for Melchior and Wendla’s lovemaking; and the exquisitely sad “Left Behind,” sung at a funeral for one of the teens are just three among many such songs.
Without these musical numbers, Spring Awakening would simply be an abbreviated version of a dated German play. With them, it becomes something both extraordinary and contemporary, as if 21st-century souls were inhabiting these long-deceased youths.
Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz may have been born in the 1870s, but their dilemmas (like the consequences of Wendla’s insufficient sexual education) still ring true in 2015, and never more so than with director Israel and choreographer Lett adding their own personal, highly original touches throughout.
CSUF’s 250-seat thrust-stage James D. Young Theatre, usually reserved for straight plays, proves an inspired choice for Spring Awakening, not only providing added intimacy but giving the production a three-dimensional look not possible on a proscenium stage, and director Israel and choreographer Lett not only make full use of the long, deep playing area but of the ceiling-high bookshelves that form the upstage wall. (More about that later.)
Israel’s cast, composed of graduating Musical Theatre BFA seniors, their Class Of 2016 counterparts, and a few Theater majors and underclassmen, is a terrific one, beginning with its three stars.
With his football quarterback looks, Whitehill is a perfectly cast Melchior, and his star quality is evident throughout his biggest role to date. Carbajal transitions to impressive effect from his “impishly appealing” Sonny in Chance Theater’s In The Heights this past summer to the deeply troubled Moritz. As for Wendla, the role is in more than capable hands as brought to life by an incandescent Ritchey, a young Kate Winslet with an exquisite soprano.
Chelle Denton caps three years of stellar work at CSUF alongside an equally fine Mitchell McCollum as Spring Awakening’s Adult Female and Male, and both soon-to-graduate seniors offer subtle distinctions between the many roles they play.
Nick Gardner and Dylan David Farris defy stereotypes as gay students Ernst and Hanschen, and their Act Two love scene is played as it should be, not for laughs but for empathy, earning the romantic duo a deserved tear or two.
Tyler Lemire (as mother-fixated Otto) and Cody Bianchi (as piano teacher-obsessed Georg) are both excellent as well, with Bianchi’s few solos showing off some sensational pipes (and he plays the piano too).
As for the girls, Emily Chelsea shows us the innocent still living in runaway Ilse (along with a lovely soprano), while Katie Lee reveals radiance as physically abused Martha (and some great big pipes in “The Dark I Know Well”), with Ellie Wyman’s Thea and Madeline Ellingson’s Anna both marvelous too.
The students played by ensemble members Matt Dunn, Anyssa Navarro, Allison Parker, and Spencer Pierson may not get names or solos, but all four do standout work.
Lett’s choreography may well be his most exciting to date, and refreshingly original in a musical whose stomps and back kicks and leaps and jumps won its Broadway choreographer the Tony. There’s a bit of all four elements in Lett’s work, but so much more, and when cast members start literally climbing the walls (and doing trust dives from high above), the effect is breathtaking, as are Lett’s balletic moves in “Touch Me.”
Under Mitchell Hanlon’s expert musical direction, a costumed six-piece onstage band provide live accompaniment any professional production could envy—James Beale on bass, Madison Clark on violin, David Dobbs on drums, Garrett Hazon on guitar, Jennifer Li on cello, and Nathaniel Soule on piano and harmonium.
Mauri Smith’s scenic design consists mostly of that upstage wall of books, but what an ingenious wall of books it is, allowing among other things Headmaster Knochenbruch and his associate Fräulein Knuppeldick to remain high above the students whose lives they oversee with tough love (minus the love)—and a whole lot more wall-climbing than you’d ever expect.
Michelle Kincaid’s costumes have a just-right period-meets-contemporary look, Ben Hawkins’ lighting design is as stunning as lighting designs get, and Anthony Murano’s sound design provides a crystal-clear mix of amplified vocals and instrumentals. (Israel gives us a hand-mike-free Spring Awakening, proving that while this may have been one of the reasons for the show’s great big Broadway splash, it can do quite nicely without them if in the right hands, no pun intended.)
Debra Garcia Lockwood is production manager, stage management, and lighting design supervisor of a team headed by stage manager Lindsay Lowy and assistant stage managers Claire Carrigan, Alex Johnson, and Kailey Stuart.
Additional deserved program credit goes to assistant director Michael Phillips, fight choreographer Wyn Moreno, makeup-hair designer Stephanie Shorter, associate choreographer Gardner, rehearsal accompanist Soule, and an entire page more.
Once again proving that Cal State Fullerton’s annual slate of plays and musicals ought to be on every Orange County theatergoer’s must-see list alongside productions at South Coast Repertory, 3-D Theatricals, and the Chance (among others), their latest musical hit provides a showcase for some of the most talented up-and-comers in the musical theater world.
I’ve seen umpteen Spring Awakenings, and will gladly see more. CSUF’s is one of the best.
James D. Young Theatre, California State University, Fullerton Department of Theatre & Dance, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.
May 3, 2105
Photos: Mark Ramont