Gloucester Stage Company Delivers Powerful ‘Spring Awakening’ (4.5 stars)

‘Spring Awakening’ Created by Steven Sater (Book and Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (Music and Orchestrations); Directed by Eric C. Engel; Musical Direction by Catherine Stornetta; Choreography by Jodi Leigh Allen. Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St. Gloucester, MA through July 14th.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I went to see the Gloucester Stage Company’s production of “Spring Awakenings”, but given that what I remembered from my quick skim of the show’s press release was that it was about the “trials and tribulations, and the exhilaration of the teen years”, I think I was expecting a light hearted coming of age rock musical. Instead, what I saw was a beautifully dark, brilliantly executed coming of age story set in late 19th century Germany – which is quite a far cry from say, the teen years depicted in Broadway hits like “Hairspray”.

The show opens with young teen Wendla Bergmann asking her mother where babies come from (something that most kids now know by kindergarten) and the lovely opening song (“Mama Who Bore Me”) reveals that the other town girls her age are equally clueless about the process. The boys are not much better off in the sexual education department, and we are introduced to them via the stern school system where they are being taught the classics. Moritz Steifel, a highly anxious boy with a haircut reminiscent of Henry from David Lynch’s cult classic movie “Eraserhead”, fumbles his answer and the teacher mercilessly berates him for it. His friend, intellectual rebel Melchior Gabor, tries to defend him and the teacher punishes him by whacking him with a stick. After Melchior’s character is fleshed out in the moving “All That Is Known” about the stifling nature of school and society in general, Moritz confides in Melchior that he is troubled by erotic dreams, which he thinks are a sign of madness. Melchior explains the normalcy of his dreams, which leads to a funny ensemble piece about sexual frustration and masturbation by the boys (“The Bitch of Living”). All of this sets the stage for the rest of the musical, which quickly turns much darker as some of the uglier sides of sexuality (including various forms of abuse) and the consequences of repression and suppression over education begin to emerge.

The adult characters – whether they be teachers, school administration, clergy, doctors or parents – are uniformly oppressive and brutal, save for the kindly Frau Gabor, Melchior’s mother. All male leads are played with a convincing viciousness by Boston veteran Paul Farwell, and Amelia Broome is equally good in all the female adult roles. This is a tough, unbending, patriarchal German society, and the lighting, costuming and music keep the audience well aware of the mood and mores of the time.

The kids soon begin to do what teen kids do, no matter what the era. Melchior and Wendla become intimate with fairly horrifying consequences; one of the teens takes their own life as a result of some grossly unfair behavior on the part of school officials; another teen cast out of her house by abusive parents lives a terrible life of drunkenness and abuse; and a then-forbidden love story emerges. This is an unflinching look at teens struggling with their sexual awakenings in an era that made me glad that mine was in the late sixties and early seventies. The cast of boys and girls (largely from Emerson College and Boston Conservatory) is terrific, beginning with Phil Tayler (who was equally good in last year’s “Of Mice and Men” at the BCA) as Melchior and Melody Madarasz as Wendla. The intimate setting of the Gloucester Stage (249 seats) lends itself well to this production, and the cast delivers their numbers without the benefit of mikes. The set is spare but effectively conveys the bleak and sterile mood of the time, and the costumes are well done (and purposely as sexy as 1950’s nun habits). A gentleman sitting next to me said he actually preferred this production to the Tony Award-winning Broadway one.

This really is a first-rate production, but a word of caution: it may not be suitable for immature adolescents to sit through with parents, as its dark themes and frank sexual expression can be a little much (there is no nudity however). But if you’re looking or a great time at the theater with a some depth, this is a must see show.

For more, see The Gloucester Stage Company.