Fall musical a spring awakening

The musical “Spring Awakening” is about as dark and heavy as they come – filled with traumas of teen years endured amidst harsh and repressive German culture. Think suicide, incest, child abuse and abortion. It’s based on a late 19th century work by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

It’s hardly the stuff of typical high school musicals, but that didn’t stop Adam Berger from choosing it for his school’s fall musical. Berger directed Arizona’s first high school production of “Spring Awakening” for the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics, a Phoenix charter school that’s part of the Sequoia Schools group.

Berger first saw “Spring Awakening” performed on Broadway during the summer of 2007. “It was,” he says, “a theatrical experience I’ll never forget.” Berger describes the musical as “a daring work of art that puts the struggles and feelings of teenagers at its forefront in a completely honest and often explicit way.”

It features book and music by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. The touring production has twice been performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe, which had the benefit of a much larger stage. Despite the quality of ACAA’s production, some elements simply don’t transfer with ease to a smaller setting.

Going big with certain dance movements made them feel akward on the smaller stage, and the hand-held mics that visually reinforce the individuality of each character’s voice during professional productions of “Spring Awakening” were distracting at best — due in part to overall sound challenges during Sunday afternoon’s performance.

Some might say that my own German heritage is showing here — leading, as I am, with the things in my “needs improvement” column. I wish the vocalists had nailed more of the uber-high notes. I wish the scene with two boys exploring romantic feelings for one another hadn’t elicited giggles from the audience. I wish the movement work as characters explored their bodies hadn’t been more timid for the men than for the women.

But having said all that, performing a work of this magnitude with less than three months of preparation is quite a fete. It’s hard to imagine that many schools could have done it better. The cast clearly recognizes the signifiance of even being allowed to perform such a work, and wisely thanked their school principal, during closing remarks following a standing ovation, for letting them go there.

Three groups of people — the production team, the cast of 17 and the four-piece orchestra — were instrumental in pulling it off. Berger served as director, set and costume designer, sharing lighting design duties with Eli Zuick. “Set painting/decoration” was the work of “the cast.” The orchestra included Mark 4man (conductor/piano), Jonathan Nilson (guitar), Kenny Grossman (drums) and Erin Burley (violin).

The live music, especially solo guitar and violin work, was haunting. Vocals by the full cast and ensemble, especially during the final musical number (“The Song of Purple Summer”) were rich and powerful. My favorite vocal performances featured Chica Loya (“Whispering”) and Kimberlyn Austin (“Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”).

The cast of “Spring Awakening” included students from ACAA and other schools, including Arizona School for the Arts, Brophy College Preparatory, Desert Vista High School and Notre Dame Preparatory. Two adults with community theater credits, Brett Aiken and Terri Scullin, performed adult men and adult women roles.

Every student cast member bio boasts prior on-stage experience, working with Arizona Broadway Theatre, Broadway Palm Theatre, Desert Foothills Theatre, Greasepaint Youtheatre, Mesa Encore Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Spotlight Youth Theatre, Theater Works and Valley Youth Theatre.

The acting performance of several students improved, as if slowly unfolding, over the course of the production. Namely Chica Loya (Wendla), Brad Cashman (Melchior) and Ian M. White (Moritz). Loya could have conveyed youthful innocence without resorting to the baby-like quality in her voice, but her performance was impressive nonetheless.

The scenes where you’d most expect high school students to stumble were some of the most beautifully executed ones. To some they’re dubbed “the switch scene” and “the swing scene.” Thankfully, “the self stimulation scene” included a blanket and a light touch of humor. The perils of puberty are central to “Spring Awakening,” and these thoughtful actors convey them well.

Plenty of people question the appropriateness of “Spring Awakening” for high school students, but a grandmother who saw Sunday’s performance told me she understands the lure of this work for youth — noting that its stories are their stories. “They have an intrinsic connection to this material,” reflects Berger, “that we adults can only look back and remember.”

— Lynn

Note: ACAA was careful to note the “mature” nature of this piece in event materials, even requiring a parent-signed permission slip for audience members under the age of 18. Nearly Naked Theatre will present “Spring Awakening” in association with Phoenix Theatre in June/July 2012 — click here for details.

Coming up: A Valley actor and college student shares his “Spring Awakening” reflections, “God of Carnage” on stage and screen, Opportunities for young playwrights

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