SU Drama's "Spring Awakening" demands to be seen

Review: The production of the 2006 Tony Award-winning rock musical closes the university's season with creative daring.

It all seemed at first glance like I walked in the theater way too early.

The orchestra was splayed out on the left side of a giant, tattered barn that looked incomplete, half full. Shirts, pants, dresses, socks, shoes and various haberdasheries were arranged downstage-center. And the young, nubile ensemble were talking, laughing, mischievously whispering as they stretched, warmed up and put on their clothes.

Photo: Michael Davis
Ethan Butler (Moritz), Brady Richards (Melchior) and Delphi Borich (Wendla Bergmann) in the SU Drama production of Spring Awakening.

This little touch of letting the audience peek into this nearly always hidden pre show ritual of the actors putting on their theatrical armor and steadily morphing into their characters was one of just a string of choices, intricacies and performances that made SU Drama’s production of Spring Awakening an event of dramatic proportions. Brave, bold and bristling with a feverish abandon and energy, this talented ensemble delivered one of those rare theatrical experiences that stirs both heart and mind.

But the best part? It’s the most fun I’ve had in the theater in some time.

Based on a play written in 1891 by German playwright Frank Wedekind, the controversial and often banned drama focuses on the trails and tribulations of confused and sexually questioning teenagers growing up in a sexually repressive society. 

Adapted in 2006 into a musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and an electrifying score by Duncan Sheik (then popularly known for his 1996 hit song “Barely Breathing”), the Broadway production would end up earning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and kickstarted the careers of Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher, Jr. and Skylar Astin.

And just as the Broadway production produced its fair share of stars, as the lights came up for the curtain call, a constellation of talent bowed under the bright lights of the Arthur Storch Theater. The three prominent protagonists Wendla, Melchior and Moritz are portrayed with stunning energy, grace and abandon by Delphi Borich, Brady Richards, and Ethan Butler as teenagers exploring the possibilities of life, love and a future outside the domain of oppressive educational and parental authority.

Borich begins the show with a blossoming and impassioned plea in “Mama Who Bore Me.” All the while, her dark undertones foreshadow her fatal destiny due to paternal prudence concerning sex, pregnancy and how to manage the tumultuous emotions of adolescence.  

Richards is the show’s intellectual bad boy and struts and carries a sharp wit perhaps the equal of an adolescent Oscar Wilde or Voltaire. But Richard’s pronounced voice and depiction of Melchior’s burning insecurities transforms a simple know-it-all into a rebellious everyman. 

Butler is the tortured underdog Melchior. Ridiculed by teachers, teased by his peers, and rejected by his parents, Butler conveys a tortured soul attempting to maintain his footing under a sea of troubles. This constant friction of everyday survival brings out the best in Butler especially in the raucous number “Don’t Do Sadness” where he is armed only withRayBan wayfarers, a microphone and his magnetic voice.

But it is the group numbers where the power of youth truly breaks down and ascends into the rafters. “Mama Who Bore Me - Reprise,” “Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” “Touch Me,” “Totally F——,” and the finale “The Song of Purple Summer” are narcotic musical theatre sensations. 

The Boys (Keith Caram, Troy Hussman, Tyler Jimenez and Cory Tarallo, who resembles a young David Bowie) and the Girls (Madeline Corliss, Madie Polyak and Jodi Snyder) change the theatrical space into a youthful maelstrom. Their collective performances were charged with a striking resilience and, though serious the subject matter of the musical, injects a light touch; an irresistible air of hope. 

The heart of show lies in the in the pariah of the outcast youth of the town Ilse, played by a soulful and wistful Ana Marcu. A bohemian draped in purple with creativity dripping from her colorful locks (the prime example from Maria Marrero and Simon Brett’s strong costume design), Marcu displays the glorious yet tragic plight of the “starving artist.” Hungry but blessed with creative potency. Marcu’s Ilse represents who the teenagers of the town yearn to be but aren't brave enough to become by casting away the shelter of family and bear the stigma of society. 

Youth is not just a number. Perhaps the most energetic members of the company are two members of the Syracuse University Department of Drama faculty. Celia Madeoy and Joseph Whelan play over a dozen different adults between them scattered throughout the story. Spright as nymphs and as lurid and physical as their college-aged costars, Madeoy and Whelan’s ability to rapidly change costume and drop into character is nothing short of Herculean.

The production’s technical artistry rivals that of it’s performances. Directed with vigor by Michael Barakiva and choreographed with aplomb by Andrea Leigh-Smith, the acrobatics of the group numbers and the intimate one-on-one exchanges were delirious snapshots of bliss. And the deteriorating barn inspired scenic design by Jen Donsky (painted by Susannah Baron’s light design and Jonathan R. Herter’s sound design) is reminiscent of the Lost Boys colony from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

During the past semester, I have commuted to New York City every week. And like any self-respecting theater fan, I rushed to as many Broadway productions as I could. Star-studded marquees, grand opulent opening and closing numbers, and mesmerizing stage craft populated my free time. But, fittingly and ironically, the best theater I have seen all year wasn’t 250 miles away. It was just down the road on the corner of Genesee and Irving avenue. 

As the company completed the finale with the lights up and donned in their street clothes, the rejuvenating spirit of SU Drama’s production of Spring Awakening washed over me. It displayed the bright future in store for the American theater. Though the statement is cliché, “the children are a future” resonated with me as I left the theater. If these undergraduates are just a sample of the future of the theatre, I cannot wait for the future to get here. 

Review, Spring Awakening

I love this review. The talent in this show is amazing!!! Thanks for this well written review!!

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