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Review: ‘Spring Awakening’ at Zemfira Stage

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The plucky Falls Church based Zemfira Stage has taken on the Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening, a far cry from the company’s joyous summer performance of The Wizard of Oz.

Zemfira’s latest musical offering is no less remarkable in quality, but while the Wizard was a perfectly spectacular experience for everyone, especially the kiddies, Spring Awakening is a frank exploration of sexual coming-of-age and its tragic consequences in a repressive society.

With a fairly explicit love-making scene, overt references to self-gratification and at least one suicide, it’s glaringly apparent we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The cast of ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo courtesy of Zina Bleck.

Set in 1890s Germany, at an exclusive academy, the musical by Steven Sater with music by Duncan Sheik originally opened on Broadway in 2006 and went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Based on an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, the musical adaptation employs a folk-rock tone for songs that are not familiar hum-alongs, but are performed beautifully by Zemfira’s ensemble and live orchestra.

Music Director Jack Dusek leads his seven-piece band through a complex score with rewarding results, accompanying the frankly beautiful singing from the 13-member cast.

Director Katherine Bisulca, a talented actress in theater and film, has devised a fast-paced, cleverly staged production with touches of humor that prevents the subject matter from descending into maudlin sentimentality.

Bisulca doesn’t shy away from the R-rated content of Spring Awakening, but she maintains a subtle approach to it, avoiding what might otherwise become blatantly offensive. Even so, promotional material for the show warns it to be for “mature audiences only, due to explicit content.”

Choreographer Jonathan Faircloth has designed dance numbers that are fun to watch, with occasional splashes of that humor that keeps the subject matter from overwhelming the plot.

The curtain opens with a lightly comical encounter between the naïve Wendla Bergmann and her mother as the young girl entreats her reticent mom to tell her the facts of life. Samantha Dawn Franklin plays Wendla convincingly and sings beautifully as her character matures throughout the show.

Erin Gallalee displays a multi-talented tour de force as Wendla’s mom, as an aged, repressive school chancellor, along with the mother of Wendla’s boyfriend.

Wendla practices what she learns on that boyfriend, the affable Melchior Gabor, played with likable respectability by Timothy Macdonald. He and Franklin develop an explosive chemistry together.

With good intentions, but disastrous results, Melchior offers sexual advice to fellow student Moritz Stiefel, whose emotional power comes alive in a strong acting and singing performance by Brandon Leatherland.

Similar strength is displayed by Hayley Katarina as Martha Bessell, who confesses to having been abused by her father in an affecting scene. A similar bleak childhood experience drives her friend Ilse Neumann into prostitution.  who has shown great comic abilities in past performances, offers a deeply dramatic turn as the tough-talking, hapless Ilse.

Kaylen Morgan, a newcomer to the Zemfira company, brings a striking singing voice to the professional ensemble.

In fact, everyone in this ensemble, no matter how small the role, deserves credit for making this show an artistic success, including Dominique Herring, Scott Morgan, Vinnie Prime, Ahryel Tinker, Ryan Walker, and James David Wright.

Natalie Foley has dressed the set with a simple, but realistic array of leaf-less trees, ironically appropriate to the tone of “Spring Awakening.” Her set design was nicely augmented by Peter Ponzini’s lighting and James Moore’s sound. Foley’s props put the finishing touch on this minimal but effective stage tableau.

Michelle Matthews’ costumes place the action properly into a distant past, but are contemporary enough to remind us that the repressive forces are still alive in our modern world.

Spring Awakening is certainly not a play you’d feel comfortable bringing your small children to see. And for my money, the script contains some artistic flaws. Nothing is gained by setting the play more than 100 years ago. The music tries to bring the action into our world, but the cultural norms of 1890s Germany don’t readily apply to today.

This is the final weekend for the extraordinarily solid production of Zemfira’s powerful ensemble.

Spring Awakening concludes this weekend, at 8 PM Tonight and tomorrow, Saturday, January 28, 2017, at 8 PM, and at 2 PM. on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, at the James Lee Community Center – 2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church, VA., 22042. Tickets are $20 general admission; $17, seniors, students, teachers and active/retired military. Call or Text (703) 615-6626 or e-mail ZemfiraStage@gmail.com

Guest review is by Leonard Hughes.

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