Sunday, July 22, 2012

"'Spring Awakening' makes sex strange again"

So wrote Charles Isherwood in the New York Times about the play Spring Awakening in 2006.

Six years later, the Anchorage production at Out North manages to do the same.  

I'm uncomfortable in the role of public critic.  I'm not an expert here and can only say what I like and don't like.  I know that local productions use part time actors and have miniscule budgets.  I want to say nice things and encourage them.  But I don't want to mislead readers either.  So if I really didn't like something,  I just won't write about it.

Sometimes a production overcomes all the obstacles and I can unabashedly gush.   But more often there's lots that's good in an imperfect whole.

It's when I really like something, but know it's not completely fulfilled that I'm most conflicted. 

So, that said, I want to recommend Spring Awakenings to readers, but also let them know it's not perfect.  [It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until August 5 at Out North.]

In this production, there were a number of things that didn't quite work for me, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the energy and enthusiasm of the cast and the musicians and the audience.  It was the excitement of local theater, with mostly young actors and crew, reaching high and making it enough times to make the night more than worthwhile.  I think you can see some of the tension and energy in the photo of Moritz (Joey Chu on the right) and one of the other school boys. (Please someone fill in his name*.)

The most potent parts of the musical were what made this play scandalous in Germany when it was originally banned in the 1890s.  We see on stage how, as the NYTimes critic writes, "the discovery of sex temporarily disorders everything."  While technologically we've become a far different world  in the 120 years since the play was written, sex still scares the shit out of parents, teachers, and preachers, as well as the kids themselves.  And the adults' inability to handle the topic only makes things worse.  

The excitement and energy and uncertainty of sexual awakening is present throughout the play.  And the parts that didn't quite work for me were ok because experimenting and sometimes not getting it quite right is also an important part of adolescence.  Sometimes a singer couldn't quite get the high note.  And I felt I'd seen a series of scenes more than a whole play.  The adult roles (that's how they were listed in the program) were played by the same two people throughout.  Amanda Winkelman was wickedly good.  But it was a little confusing, particularly at first.  I thought, for example, that Melchior's mother was also the teacher.  Some little but obvious change in costume might have helped.  And a fair amount of time was spent with the actors front stage on the floor - or on a small riser - which made them almost invisible in Out North's crowded bleachers.  

Latin Lesson before it explodes

For me the scene that worked best, came fairly early - the Latin lesson in the boys school that explodes into a terrifically choreographed expression of adolescent frustration and anger and pent up energy.  

Another fully realized scene came when Melchior is confronted by the teachers, and knows he's trapped.  You can see him squirm.  There's no escape.  He bursts out in a very appropriate song, "I'm Fucked."  It works perfectly.  We've all been there.

There are some great voices in this cast - Ashley Glore as Wendla - for example. Coleman Alquire was a perfect Melchior and Joey Chu made Moritz's struggles very real.  *Despite the fact that among the characters were the names of both my grandfathers, who would have been adolescents generally in that period in Germany, I had trouble, except for the lead roles,  keeping track of names.

Sitting in the audience, even having trouble seeing everything,  I felt a part of an exciting undertaking.  (Have I said 'exciting' enough yet?) The live music, the young cast, the murals on the wall, I couldn't help feeling that Out North is doing exactly the right thing by giving a relatively young director and cast the chance to reach for the moon.

And in small local theaters like Out North, you can talk to the cast and crew afterward.  And so I stuck my camera in the face of director, Caleb Bourgeois, in the one spot of light in the dark theater afterward.  He gives more overview about the play and its history and conveys the infectious excitement of the evening. 

UAA's Northern Lights reporter, Heather Hamilton, does a good job of giving more background about the three lead actors.

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