Need more proof the Great White Way isn’t the only fertile ground for memorable nights out at the theater? Look no further than Mazeppa Productions’ thrilling staging of the rock musical Spring Awakening, the best of the company’s offerings since its debut last year. Founded by artistic director Rob Henry and managing director Brian Seamen, Mazeppa made its mark with Summer 2011’s reimagining of Pippin and a children’s musical, Dear Edwina. But the third time’s clearly the charm: They’ve delivered Philadelphia theater’s first sleeper hit of the season.
Adapted from the controversial 1892 Frank Wedekind play of the same name, Spring Awakening is set in late-19th-century Germany and includes instances of rape, child abuse, masturbation, homosexuality and suicide—even a headless corpse. Not exactly mainstream fodder, the play was immediately banned and took nearly 15 years before it finally appeared on stage again. Even then, it was often censored or quickly shut down by authorities.
Ably aided by Duncan Sheik’s music and Steven Sater’s book and lyrics, the modern version is slightly tamer and less surreal than Wedekind’s original, but it retains the play’s eroticism and tragic vision of an authoritarian society in which teenagers are taught to fear their elders and kept ignorant about sex and their changing bodies.
Bolstered by Seaman’s realistic set, director Henry moves the story’s setting to what looks like a late 1950s/’60s soda shop where teenagers hang out after school. The choice of what is often considered America’s last era of innocence suits the story nicely, and Henry uses his youthful cast’s natural mix of child-like joy and innocent charm to create a production that feels far more spontaneous and authentic than the slick Broadway production (which, nevertheless, captured a staggering eight Tony Awards). Large cast shows typically suffer from inconsistency in the actors’ talent level, a problem that you would expect to be multiplied when the ensemble is as young as the group assembled here is. Under Henry’s direction, there isn’t a single false note, missed step or inauthentic performance.
The moment the production begins with Breanna Pursell’s assured yet effectively vulnerable rendition of the opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” we know we’re in for something special. Pursell gave local audiences a hint of her talent earlier this season in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s staging of Gypsy, but as the naïve Wendla, one of Awakening ’s three primary characters, she has a part that allows her to display the full range of her abilities, not the least of which is her pure and powerful voice, which she modulates with the expertise of a veteran musical theater performer. Pursell’s performance alone would make Awakening worth a visit, but it’s only one of the show’s many pleasures.
Among the male leads, Jim Hogan is excellent as Wendla’s boyfriend, Melchior. The son of the only adult we meet who possesses even a modicum of compassion, Melchior is the most mature of the teens, but in this totalitarian society ruled by powerful and corrupt institutions, unsanctioned knowledge can be dangerous. Even so, Melchior’s confidence makes him more capable of handling the pressures of school than his best friend, Moritz—played by Nate Golden in a performance that signals the arrival of a future star. Like Wendla, Moritz is dangerously ignorant about sex and the powerful physical and emotional changes occurring in his adolescent body. In a rigid society in which sex is considered shameful and forbidden outside of wedlock, the youths are ill-equipped to handle the challenges of adulthood, and the consequences of the ignorance imposed on them by parents, teachers and the church are severe.
In addition to the three leads, strong performances are turned in by Billy Kametz, who is marvelously arrogant as the savvy gay teen, Hanschen, and Ian Monaco as Hanschen’s sweetly naive boyfriend, Ernst. A long, passionate kiss between the two is one of the production’s most effective scenes.
Sheik’s rock score is filled with catchy showstoppers, but no song sums up the teenagers’ attitude toward their lives as well as the anti-authority punk anthem “Totally Fucked,” which energized the packed house of theatergoers. Tapping into the nihilistic rage celebrated by the pioneering punk band the Sex Pistols, the blistering song is the one moment when the students assume control of their lives. Exuberantly choreographed by Dawn Morningstar, the production’s dance numbers also play to the strengths of the young cast.
Unless it proves to be a total fluke, Spring Awakening makes Mazeppa a welcome addition to the city’s musical theater scene and a company to watch. If indeed part of its mission is to “showcase emerging musical theater artists,” the level of talent on display in Spring Awakening gives just cause to be very optimistic about the future of Philadelphia stage. ■
Through Sat., July 28. $20-$25. Christ Church Neighborhood House, 40 N. American St. mazeppaproductions.org