A musical 'Spring Awakening'

PCPA Theaterfest adds a rocking score to its take on the 1891 play

Special to The TribuneMarch 13, 2014 

Benjamin McNamara, center, and Andrew Philpot in "Spring Awakening."

LUIS ESCOBAR/REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO

"Spring Awakening” is a moving rock-style musical that tells an ageless story and showcases a generation of talent that is on the cusp of professionalism. 

We sometimes forget that PCPA stands for Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts and that it trains performers and technical artisans for theater careers. “Spring Awakening,” directed and choreographed by Valerie Rochelle, is a perfect vehicle for the large cast of students and acting interns, and their strong acting, singing and dancing skills bode well for the future of theater. 

“Spring Awakening” was a play written in 1891 by German playwright Frank Wedelin, but it was banned in Germany then because of its subject matter, which deals with sexuality, child abuse, abortion, homosexuality and suicide. The play had a history of controversy and closures before Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik revamped it and added a score of alternative rock music that empowers the characters. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2006 to rave reviews and won an array of awards, including eight Tonys.

The warnings about the subject matter are too harsh by today’s standards, although it is an R-rated scenario. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the tragic story is touching. 

The play is set in Germany in the late 19th century, when children and adolescents were repressed by the strict moral codes of their parents and of the Lutheran Church. Opening scenes set the tone as boys in school uniforms recite Latin in school to a stern teacher, and in another scene Wendla, a pretty teen, asks her mother where babies come from. Her mother is embarrassed by the question and doesn’t tell her. Wendla is joined by a chorus of young women, in colorful dresses and old-fashioned boots, singing “Mama Who Bore Me.” 

The songs in the show, both solo and choral, are strong expressions of the feelings of the characters. They go from sensual and sentimental to rousing ensemble song and dance numbers. Callum Morris is music director.

The adults, including mothers, fathers and teachers, are all played by the same two actors, billed as Male Adult Figure (Andrew Philpot) and Female Adult Figure (Elizabeth Stuart). Understudy Steven Jasso played the man in the one I saw. The adults are portrayed as symbolic authority figures, cold and unsympathetic, feeling threatened by “the creeping sensuality” and “moral corruption” they see in the youth of the time.

One of the boys calls the situation a “parentocracy,” but it’s really an “adultocracy.” 

Two stories are told, and neither ends well. Wendla, played and sung movingly by Casey Canino, begins a friendship with Melchior, a rebel of sorts who is turning his back on the overbearing church and investigating the adolescent sexuality of both men and women. He says that “Shame is a product of education.” Benjamin McNamara gives the role a likable feistiness. His budding friendship with the innocent Wendla turns into a sexual adventure, with unfolding consequences.

Melchior’s friend Moritz is not paying enough attention at school, annoying the headmaster, who plots to punish him, with devastating results. Lucas Blair is heart-wrenching as Moritz, building a memorable character.

All of the acting is excellent, and the intimacy of the small Severson Theatre brings the emotions up close. 

The subject matter shouldn’t turn any adults away from this memorable musical. Its themes of coming of age and adult and youth relationships are timeless, and the music is as fresh and contemporary as its performers. 

IF YOU GO

"Spring Awakening"
Various times and dates through March 23
Severson Theatre, Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria
$15.50 to $37.50
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org

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