"Spring Awakening" Is Mazeppa Productions' First Sleeper Hit of the Summer

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 28 | Posted Jul. 17, 2012

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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

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COMMENTS

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1. Jersey Theater Critic said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 01:53AM

“Spring Awakening is a hit. The above review is accurate only it omits the Two Adult roles of Adult Men (Michael Gray)and Adult Women(Leeanna Rubin) both performed well. Attention to non singing roles is often over looked in reviews, it is after all a musical. I especially note the special roles portrayed by Leeanna Rubin. She manges to capture the nuanaces of five, yes five women. All older then the actress in years yet she manages to hypnotise the audience by her believable and convincing performance in all five roles. Perhaps the most diffiult of parts without aid of heavy makeup or costumes to capture five different women's unique personalities and have audiences forget all are acted by one talented actress. She pulls it off seemingly effortlessly and demonstrates comedic talent as Piano Teacher & School Principal. Adult Men (Michael Gray) Adult Women(Leeanna Rubin) are the acting foundation on which this musical is built.”

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2. Philadelguy123 said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 08:28AM

“Much agreed! I loved this production. I am heading back to see it a second time next weekend.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 12:02PM

“Fortunate enough to have seen this production and an thrilled to see a glowing review in print! 100% with Mr. Robb!

Kudos to Mazeppa Productions and a job well done!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 01:53PM

“Saw this production Saturday night and it was FANTASTIC! Also wanted to give a shout out to the women (Grace and Jenna) who performed "The Dark I Know Well." Excellent emotion and beautiful voices. Nate (Moritz) is also a real stand-out. Such moving portrayals all around.”

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5. TheatreisMyLife said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 02:51PM

“I loved loved loved this production. It was so great to see this musical completely re-invented and outside of the box. The 1950's theme fit the sexual oppression that the characters suffer from and I felt so moved after the show. I completely agree the adults and ensemble steal the show. Mazeppa Productions hit it out of the park!

My only complaints were Moritz and Wendla. His singing was extremely screechy/whiney I had a difficult time enjoying my favorite songs ie Bitch of Living, Those You've Known, And Then There Were Known, and Touch Me. He also was too flamboyant for the role of Moritz who I think of as such a lost soul/weird kid trying to find his way. The actress who played Wendla was way to soft and I had to strain to hear her (mind you the theatre is extremely small). She seemed very weak and didn't have the raw sexual energy you expect to see from the character of Wendla.

But the show otherwise is extremely strong and I can't wait to see it again on their LGBT Night!”

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6. Phillytheatregeek said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 04:35PM

“I saw the show last Saturday, and while I generally agree the production is a good production, it is flawed and the reviewer may have been a little too generous with the adjectives of praise. I agree with the above comment that Moritz, played by Golden is very hard to listen to and is indeed screechy and flamboyant in his performance, which comes off as a bad copy of John Gallagher Jr.'s original performance. Next, Wendla, played by Pursell who apparently has problems projecting even in an intimate space and has no chemistry with her Melchior, played by Hogan is forgettable. Hogan, reads old and at times appears to know what he is going to do before he does it, at times appearing unaffected by his scene partners, which doesn't help with the chemistry, he does however have an exquisite voice. So what does that leave us with, a strong and competent ensemble. The ensemble moves the story and gives the production a much needed dose of energy, the group numbers shine! Bravo to them!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 05:03PM

“Truly impressed by this production. This review could not have said it better. Go see this production!”

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8. PassayunkGirl24 said... on Jul 18, 2012 at 11:09PM

“I'm sorry but this article is a little misleading. No where in there is there specific praise for the girl's ensemble who I feel far outshine the actress playing Wendla. I had the opportunity to see the performance with my friend who is an Artistic Director, and we BOTH agreed her performance was flat, snotty, and down right cold. There was no innocence or charm about her, We enjoyed anytime the full girls' chorus came on because we knew we would see youth, true pure spirit, and REAL ACTING. I am not sure why this article gloried her Ensemble role in "Gypsy"? I'm pretty sure many other cast members have worked at equity theatres in better roles.

I really enjoyed Hogan's performance. He gave Melchoir a real arc and light. But what was up with Moritz?! That death scene could not come soon enough. The couple next to me wanted to leave because they said his voice was nauseating. PW who are your sources? Give credit where credit is due please. Those 4 girls deserve some praise please!”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 09:49AM

“This was a great show and I will definitely see it again. I was especially impressed with Zach Kononov, who played Otto. Even though he was just part of the ensemble, he had a beautiful and strong voice and was always energetic and animated. Definitely an actor worth watching for in the future. Congrats to Mazeppa on a job well done!”

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10. SAjunky said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 03:48PM

“I've loved this show since the beginning. I had no idea, this was even in Philly until this review. I was lucky enough to get a seat last night. I loved it. Soup to nuts. I think john Gallagher would be proud that someone took their own spin on mortiz. A little hard to hear sometimes but I enjoyed the individuality.”

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11. TheShowmeister said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 06:43PM

“Saw the show last Sunday afternoon. Before that, it was the Boradway production many years ago. Let's keep it real...Of the three leads, Jim Hogan had a great voice. He did telegraph coming actions and had zero chemistry with Wendla. He did show real interactions with the other girl students. I could not hear Wendla even though she sang less than five feet away from me. She lacked emotion and seemed to have a diva attitude. The actor who played Moritz whined like the character "Pat" from the old SNL skit! BUT....The men and female chorus sang and acted great.! They gave the show its proper pace, movement and appropriate levels of emotions. The adult woman & man actors were equally great fulfilling their demanading transformations with ease. Finally, hats off to director Rob for the setting this version in a 50's diner. I got, and so did everyone else I spoke with who loved this show. GO SEE IT FOR THE CHORUS ALONE, they have my junk!”

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12. theatregal said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 08:45PM

“Going to see this a second time next week. Its so refreshing to see a new take on famous shows. I like not seeing carbon copies of the original. I really liked the girl who played wendla. Such a wonderful voice. Clear and poignant. And I loved loved loved the ensemble, especially the tall red head and Otto.

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13. #theatergirl said... on Jul 19, 2012 at 09:44PM

“I saw this production of Spring Awakening opening night last week and I this this review is misleading. I think the ensemble out shined the three leads. Melchoir and Wendla had no chemistry whatsoever. Moritz was so whiney. It was too painful to listen to him sing. My two favorite songs, "And Then There Were None" and "Don't Do Sadness" were ruined. I only looked forward to when the ensemble performed. They really made the show!”

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14. buckscolovestheatre said... on Jul 20, 2012 at 05:45PM

“Bitter/Whiney: Party of about 7. Hogan (Melchior) and Pursell (Wendla) are smart actors and know that "less really is more". This play isn't about production and histrionics. It's about subtlety and nuance and these two actors knew exactly how to play these impossibly complex and tortured young people. I thought their restraint was remarkable and intelligent. I had absolutely no problem hearing or understanding them and I'm a senior citizen and I sat on the side. Their reactions came from some interior emotions they were trying so hard to express to each other. This is not Rent or American Idiot...this is chamber theatre at its finest. In a way it reminded me of Sondheim's "Passion" where the characters are in a constant struggle to express but can't. Stop talking about chemistry...this isn't science class...it's theatre. If you want big/brassy/bold/flashy then go see "Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert". This was a sonata and I think you wanted some hip-hop. Kudos to the cast.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jul 20, 2012 at 09:34PM

“I saw the show Saturday night and it was terrific! I also agree that the ensemble was amazing. My two most memorable moments in the show were of Hanschen. Hats off to the director and cast, great job!”

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16. Anonymous said... on Jul 20, 2012 at 11:26PM

“Ensemble show with and ensemble bow. A riveting rendition.

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17. Anonymous said... on Jul 21, 2012 at 10:03PM

“buckscolovestheatre: But see.. it IS like Rent or American Idiot because it is rock music. Spring Awakening is not Sondheim. I love Spring Awakening, but please do not compare Sondheim's work to Duncan Sheiks. Entirely different works and genres, though I do appreciate you trying to defend the actors choices especially because less IS more in a small space. Also, this is a professional theatre with young professionals, so keep your comments professional as well. Saying that Moritz screeched and nauseated the crowd is rude and incredibly subjective. He gave a night of theatre to you, so the least you can do is be respectful to him.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Jul 21, 2012 at 10:07PM

“Please know I was referring generally to all the people who commented regarding the rude comments, not you buckscolovestheatre.”

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19. Sarah28.0 said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 08:44AM

“I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion. But after hearing gruffs from friends who saw the show and know that the gentleman playing Moritz is a true diva in real life, I can understand why theatergoers are having a tough time enjoying his performance and finding him believable.”

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20. Anonymous said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 11:13AM

“We love doing dramatic readings of these posts in the dressing room before the show.”

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21. Anonymous said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 12:02PM

“Even the cast knows to take these 'reviews' with a grain of salt. Stop writing under this beautiful review from an ACTUAL theatre critic. Take this negativity back to broadwayworld.”

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22. DirtyRottenWeddingSinger said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 05:08PM

“@Sarah28.0 I am entirely disappointed that anyone would be willing to turn a professional review into a condemning personal statement. I have known Golden for many years and have gotten to understand him as a performer both on stage and behind the scenes and can assure that he is no diva.

I think what the criticism of Golden alludes to is another, lesser acknowledged aspect of theatre- casting. Who would deny the opportunity to play such an intense role when offered to them? I find that that if one truly believes that the three professionals playing the leading characters are innapropriately cast, then that is not their own fault. They have been presented with the challenge and opportunity to take on these characters and give them life in a production that conceptually broke the mold of the original. I genuinely applaud these actors for their fine work and for being willing to put themselves in the eye of the public.”

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23. Anonymous said... on Jul 22, 2012 at 10:58PM

“I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the Ilse yet. I thought she was amazing.”

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24. ActingintheCity said... on Jul 24, 2012 at 01:59PM

“I don't know I am with Sarah28.0, serious miscasting in this show. I agree Ilse rocked it, as well as the character who sings in Dark I Know Well. I had goosebumps as they sang. Otto and George were perfect, but I wish the two guys who played lovers were actually the leads Moritz and Melchoir. They seemed perfect for that time period and I loved listening to their voices! I feel bag for the two other ensemble girls because I don't think they were used to their fullest potential. They could have easily played Wendla instead.”

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25. Anonymous said... on Jul 25, 2012 at 12:08PM

“Serious miscasting??? Come on folks. These posts are ridiculous. Sold out shows, standing ovations, invitations for these principal actors to audition at multiple Philly venues after being seen. My money is on the theatre professionals. I've seen this show twice now and have had the pleasure of mingling with these fine thespians post show. Talented, delightful, proud, fresh, and eager. In this day and age, let us thank Philadelphia for embracing a new theatre company and bringing a new voice into the community.”

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26. Anonymous said... on Jul 25, 2012 at 10:06PM

“Hey now! These young actors did a great job and the anonymity of the internet unfortunately provides an opportunity for everyone to be critic. Some of these comments are thoughtful and interesting and some make me sigh for mankind. Think about the kind of words you're putting out into the universe, people!”

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27. Sarah28.0 said... on Jul 26, 2012 at 03:49PM

“Haha these Shills crack me up. It's a free country, and I am just stating my review.”

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28. shill#1 said... on Jul 26, 2012 at 08:42PM

“Isn't this a newspaper? How is one called a shill? Interesting commentary by those uneducated in theatre. What I witnessed was a choice not many will make. A director directs, he doesn't copy.

It seems to me these naysayers would like to see a tour of original productionsand not entertain any thoughts of reimagining a text.

Oooohhhh. Its Shilly out tonight, isn't it. I should grab a coat.”

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