‘Spring Awakening’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

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Spring Awakening always makes a strong impression on audiences. But it is a particularly bold choice for the season-opener at Red Branch Theatre Company.

The Company of 'Spring Awakening.' Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
The Company of ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

The 2007 Tony-winning musical, adapted from a controversial 1891 German tragedy by Frank Wedekind, looks at the unhappy repercussions of a repressive society on the lives of its children.

In a way, it continues the “anti-bullying” theme from Red Branch’s last season — though the bullies, in this case, are the parents, schoolmasters, and other adults. So who you gonna call?

The music, composed on guitar by Duncan Sheik, and the lyrics by Steven Sater are in a kind of soft, alt-rock vein, and are notably well-handled at Red Branch by Music Director Dustin Merrell and his live six-piece pit band.

Most of the young performers at Red Branch are college age, yet they show no difficulty at all in relating to the sense of injustice and prudery that ignite the play’s pubescent angst.

With his curly dark hair and dimples, Danny Bertaux makes a splendid Melchior, the most promising and well liked student in his class. Bertaux nails his more sensitive solos, yet still manages to fit in comfortably with the others for the rebellious acting-out of “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F**ked.”

Javier del Pilar also proves very effective casting as the polar opposite student, Moritz, an underachiever so mortified by his bodily functions that he seems to be withdrawing physically into himself. He gets his own spectacular solo in act two, “Don’t Do Sadness.”

All of the singing at Red Branch is top-notch, especially when it comes to the group harmonies and pop-choral refrains. None of the singers are miked, however, so some of the soloists could work more on projecting to the back row of the Drama Learning Center auditorium.

Among the female leads, Rachel Bailey is a real find as Wendla, handling the acting sensitively while infusing the solo “Mama Who Bore Me” and the love duet “The Word of Your Body” with a lovely lyricism.

Ellie Borzilleri (ilse). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Ellie Borzilleri (ilse). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Ellie Borzilleri plays the free-spirited Ilse, who holds out the possibility of an escape for Moritz. She sings the haunting anthem “Blue Wind” in a lovely voice. With Avia Fields as Martha, she sings of the horror of sexual exploitation in “The Dark I Know Well.”

Others contributing strongly to the ensemble include Jonathan Miot (Otto), Michael Nugent (Hanschen), Rick Westerkamp (Georg), Jonathan Schuyler (Ernst), Meghan Abdo (Lena) and Megan Henderson (Thea). Wendy Baird and Jake Stuart fill in as the various adults with obvious skill.

The staging by Director, Jenny Male, was so fluid that there was confusion at times over where some of the scenes were taking place. A repeating business with a pistol at the beginning and end could have been made clearer, but most of the climactic moments were well-defined.

Lighting Designer David Smith kept everything running smoothly. The Scenic Design by Heidi Castle-Smith was not pretty, but it evoked a rustic, timeless location in grave need of repair, which may have been the intention.

Spring Awakening still carries some needed parental guidance warnings as it deals with incest, youth suicide, masturbation, rape, abortion, mental illness and gun violence. Like we said at the outset, it’s a bold choice for a season-opener, but the Red Branch Theatre Company has never shied away from challenges.

Running Time: About 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

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Spring Awakening plays through May 2, 2015 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I  Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.