The cast of Ovations Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening could sing the phone book and still be entrancing. Director Darnell Patrick Morris brought a fresh approach to the Tony Award-winning musical. The juxtaposition of modern music with costumes and set from the late 1800s helps display the universality of teen angst: the thirst for knowledge, love, preoccupation with bodily changes in puberty, child abuse, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and suicide, and longing for a more innocent time.
Previously appearing as a play by Frank Wedekind in 1891, and a 1921 silent film, Spring Awakening was given new life on Broadway in 2006 with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. The resulting musical included a variety of musical styles from the haunting “The World of Your Body” to the rock-inspired “Totally Fucked.”
A lot of action is packed into this two hour production. What could be a tragedy is turned into an insightful tour of these teens’ world through the spellbinding vocals by the cast members and the ensemble. Heather Kirschner (Wendla) sets a haunting tone as she begins the production asking her mother about the facts of life in “Mamma Who Bore Me.” Turned away by the tut-tutting of her mother, Wendla, and all of the girls ask the same questions of the universe at large. Kirschner’s soprano could both caress the notes and cut through the air like a knife. Her compatriot, Ilse, played by Josie Weinberg, possesses a well-modulated alto showcased in “Blue Wind,” a direct address of her homelessness. She and Martha, played by Chloe Friedman, display intense emotion during a shared empathy regarding child abuse in ‘The Dark I Know Well.’
The elegantly simple set design by Darnell Patrick Morris and Morgan Sannon and easily moveable props (a table moved in and out, a bed following suit, and endlessly versatile chairs) allowed attention to always be on the actors, not on the muscling of props or pauses between scenes. Within the confines of Latin class at the local Catholic Church, Ethan Miller, as the intellectual dissident Melchior, and Charles Tangiers, as the not-so-bright friend, Moritz, assisted by the rest of the boys, rebel against their teachers in ‘All that is Known’ and “The Bitch of Living.” It is in this setting that Melchior also tutors Moritz on the facts of life via a very explicit essay.
Even when they have no singing parts, the cast is fully present on stage during many of the numbers. The choreography by Eben K. Logan works very well and provides a clear reflection of the song material. Sometimes the stage was just too small to handle expansive choreography by the 21 member cast, but the choreography and cast did fit well together in the closing Act 1 number, “I Believe.”
The presence of a pit orchestra added to the fullness of the production. Valerie A. Higgs conducted the seven-piece ensemble, who played the score so beautifully. They provided just the right amount of support, never overwhelming the vocals.
Morris has added an extra dose of enrichment to the high school age cast. RJ Pavel (Otto) and Logan Dechter (Ensemble Member), each with long musical theatre experience, served as mentor actors.
This is the second season of Ovations Theatre, founded by Darnell Patrick Morris, who has been teaching musical theater in the DC; for others it was their first experience. Given the quality of the production, I look forward to seeing more from this young troupe. The next high school cast performance, Sunday in the Park With George, will hit the stage in March followed by Heathers, the Musical in July.
All of the musicals are scheduled to play for one weekend only. I hope that benefactors will be able to support two-weekend runs in the future.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.
Spring Awakening played from December 2-4, 2016, in the Kreeger Auditorium at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington – 6125 Montrose Road, in Rockville, MD. For more information about Ovations Theatre and their upcoming productions, go to their website. A schedule of arts and culture activities at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington are available online.