Courting controversy

By Paul Wozniak

'Spring Awakening' delivers, despite some technical snafus

What happens when teenagers start exploring their own sexuality? No, this isn´t the lead to a Dan Savage column, just a timeless question posed by the musical “Spring Awakening,” now playing at Riverwalk Theatre. Like their production of “Hairspray” two seasons ago, Riverwalk’s production of “Spring Awakening” has the potential to be the best of community theater. Save for a few crucial, chronic technical issues, it still could be.

In 2006, “Spring Awakening” redefined what a pop musical looked and sounded like, similar to what “Rent” did for the art form in the ‘90s. Steven Sater´s book and lyrics explore the issues of budding pubescent urges and inadequate sexual education in a late 1800s provincial German town. The plot and dialogue range from uncomfortably funny to blatantly political and melodramatic. But it´s Duncan Sheik´s indie-sounding musical hooks that truly set “Spring Awakening” apart with an acoustic rock sheen.

Adam Woolsey heads a strong cast as Melchior Gabor, an intellectually defiant teenager whose distrust of the parentocracy makes him the ladies´ choice. Woolsey owns his character in posture and voice, giving youthful gravitas to songs like “All That´s Known.” Brittany Nichols plays his naïve and emotionally wanting counterpart Wendla with the right balance of feistiness and fear.

Zachera Wollenberg shines in the supporting role of Ilse, particularly during “Don´t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” her second act duet with Moritz (Nick Gnagi). And Elitza Nicolaou and Graham Lundeen tackle a myriad of authoritative characters, from sneering, conspiring teachers to barely empathetic parents. Nicolaou and Lundeen provide developed villains for the unknowing children to verbally rail against.

Virtually all of the 15 cast members shine as soloists, but their full ensemble blends are transcendent and magical. From the playful first act number “My Junk” to the semi-hopeful epilogue “The Song of Purple Summer,” the actors nail every dissonant harmony, multiplying their sound with intense power. That power peaks during the ultimate second act showstopper, “Totally Fucked,” the play´s ode to embracing one´s fate.

Kelly Stuible´s direction and choreography borrows as necessary from the Broadway production, but adjusts blocking appropriately for the challenging Riverwalk space. Music director Nicole Martin leads an overall tight pit orchestra aided particularly by percussionist Ben Gedoshian.

But a few chronic, crucial problems keep “Spring Awakening” from sounding as polished as it should. Mainly, the sound system that supports the hands-free and hand-held microphones barely functions and often hisses like an antique Victrola when it does. Consequently, entire verses are lost in some songs under the orchestra. It’s a tribute to the tenacious professionalism of the entire crew that every song doesn’t devolve into an out-of-time trainwreck. Furthermore, a persistently off-pitch violin often distracts more than it supports.

But for fans of the Broadway production, the Riverwalk attempt is a real treat that takes on the challenging and racy content with full force.

"Spring Awakening"
Riverwalk Theatre
Through Sept. 23
7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m .Sunday
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
$20 adults/$18 seniors
(517) 482-5700