Encore Michigan

‘Spring Awakening’ at Flint Rep surprises and delights after all these years

Review June 19, 2024 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, MI–It can be difficult to keep a successful work experimental. By definition, “experimental” refers to something untested or not yet finalized.

Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening was groundbreaking and lived in the world of experimentalism when it first came out in 2006. Now, nearly 20 years and numerous productions later, it has started to fall into the realm of familiar and, dare we say—conventional.

Not so in the Flint Repertory Theatre’s production that runs for one more weekend. Director Derek Van Barham is unafraid to walk away from iconic choices that duplicate the original. Instead, he leads his cast on an unflinching charge into a new interpretation of this coming-of-age story.

It helps that the musical started out blazing that trail, a work based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play which was considered groundbreaking for its time.

In both works, a group of teenagers struggle with their blossoming sexuality and the repressive adults who would plunge their newly blooming flowers into dank darkness. Melchoir Gabor, played in the Flint production by Zachary Keller, is an intelligent and quick-thinking student and idealist who believes in little of what he is told to do. While he discards convention intentionally, his best friend Moritz Stiefel (Austin McCoy) struggles against his inability to live up to the demands of instructors and society.

Wendla Bergman (McKenlee Wilson) lives in a place of innocence that she longs to leave, wanting to know the world not out of rebellion but of intense curiosity.

While the musical traditionally opens with the powerful “Mama Who Bore Me,” a song demanding answers and issuing the warning of what happens when one is kept in ignorance, Van Barham augments the show with a prelude in which characters untie ribbons from the poles that jut up on the stage stretching lengthwise across the space. It’s done to the overture of a Billie Ellish song that forewarns of the struggles the teenagers are about to experience.

Van Barham doesn’t force feed the audience his themes. Many are expressed in subtle character shifts, bits of costumes and blocking each actor’s gaze, sometimes intensely watching and sometimes turning away.

While Spring Awakening was never light and chipper, Van Barham turns the lights down even further, immersing the characters in a shadowy land where illumination and the spotlight are rare and treasured. Lighting Designer Chelsie McPhilimy created a tightly controlled color and brightness scheme, collaborating with Van Barham’s storytelling to weave an ever-changing–but always intense–emotional tapestry.

Keller, McCoy and Wilson all rise to the fervent demands of their roles—emotionally, physically and musically. Keller’s Melchoir isn’t just an aloof intellectual who falls into a teaching role with Moritz and Wendla. Rather, Keller ensures that Melchoir has an authentic and strong connection with each of them. He acts out of love and a desire for a better world.

Again and again, Keller escorts the audience to intensely painful experiences, opening the door by laying bare his own heartache and emotions. He can whip the boys in the cast and the audience into an angry frenzy during “Totally Fucked” right after ripping out everyone’s hearts in “Left Behind.”

McCoy boldly infused Moritz with a hungry frenzy. One can almost see his hormones racing wildly out of control in the way he moves, the expressions he forms and the desperation in his voice. Moritz and Melchoir belong together not because of their similarities, but because their differences complement each other.

If Melchoir’s journey is one from frustrated idealism to disillusioned determinism and Moritz’s is from fearful confusion to oblivion, Wendla embodies the transition from uneasy innocence to dangerous passion. Wilson travels that arc with Wendla, ensuring that innocence is not equated with simplicity, even when the young woman blithely accepts the misdirections of the adults in her life.

The mutual seduction of “The Word of Your Body” shimmers with intimacy even as it marks the moment of transformation for not just the two soon-to-be lovers, but their entire community.

The story revolves primarily around the three central characters, though the surrounding ensemble continually carries the stories forward while creating the world which they all move through. The ensemble is present in nearly every crucial moment. Van Barham places them as witnesses, as supporters, as sentient set dressing.

Bryana Hall’s Ilse performs as a sort of Greek chorus, though the narrative is most often found in her gaze rather than her words. Often depicted as a sort of hippie who is oblivious to the world that she was thrust out of, Hall instead creates a wise woman, someone who has made the journey from victim to survivor. She literally embraces those whose suffering is becoming too much to bear. She reaches out to her peers with love and hope, whether in “The Dark I Know Well” or “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind.” In the latter, Ilse, cognizant that the moment is critical, pleads with Moritz in his final chance to prevent a fast-approaching doom.

Quinn Simmons takes Hanschen in a different direction than is traditional. Yes, Hanschen still has that sadistic edge as illustrated in his masturbating to Desdemona’s murder. However, he is somewhat less cynical and less of a contrasting foil to Melchoir. It’s a choice that makes the reprise of “Word of Your Body” feel more hopeful and genuine rather than one boy taking advantage of another.

Musical director Leah Fox conducted perfect vocal blends that were haunting and tight. While the solos were powerful, the absolute harmony of the ensemble raised the caliber of the show up several notches. The four-piece band contributed energy to the mix, the keyboard, guitar, percussion and cello preserving the mix of folk and alt-rock sound.

The choreography by Von Barham and assistant director Brennan Urbi pound out the beat of the adolescent march toward the summer of adulthood. It performs the dual purpose of establishing each character’s personality and expressing their rebellion, frustration and growth. The two forge a creative path, one that isn’t bound to how “Spring Awakening” has been done over the past few decades. Rather they faithfully stick to the story that they are trying to tell.

In a musical that revolves around sexuality and the consequences of ignorance, Alexis Black plays a critical role as fight and intimacy director. The lust—both that which is consummated and that which is not—must exist almost as a character of its own, one that drips from each adolescent even while keeping each actor portraying that safe.

Eli Sherlock transformed the Elgood Theatre so that his set stretched end-to-end, dividing the audience into two opposite areas where they must see each other as well as the actors. It immersed the action between those who watched, making sure that no one could escape the gaze of others.

The set was limited to risers on either side and poles that served both symbolic and practical purposes jutting up throughout the center.

Spring Awakening defies conventionality—even its own. This production blazes a new trail in keeping this iconic story of adolescent rebellion and awakening fresh and compelling. Whether you have never seen the show or seen it several times, this production extends the promise of excitement, surprise and intense emotion.

Week of 7/15/2024

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