Spring Awakening blooms in small setting at Lesher Center

Pat Craig
San Jose Mercury News
April 25, 2012

Many years ago, about midway through fifth grade, the mother of a friend of mine gave him a book about ESSS-EEEE-EXXX, as we called it then.

It had enlightening illustrations, text that proved instructive with the help of a dictionary and new knowledge that shattered the stories we told each other, essentially ruining myth with fact.

And the reality back at school was this knowledge got us no closer to the girls, so it really served no practical purpose. It was sort of like handing an auto repair book to someone who had no idea what a distributor cap was.

Move that back to the Germany of the 1890s, and you pretty much get what it's like for the kids in Spring Awakening, the 2007 Tony Award-winning musical playing in the intimate Knight Stage 3 Theatre at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

For those reasons and many others, I was blown away by the musical the first time I saw it, just as I was by this new production by Center REPertory Company.

Here's what I wrote the first time:
"What the musical does beautifully is blend the 19th-century rock-ribbed morality and facts-of-life bashfulness with the freeing concupiscence of rock music. Essentially, the repressed 1890s German adolescents in the musical whip out wireless microphones, which become talismanlike time machines, linking the poor repressed kids with the sound, soul and freedom of contemporary rock."

That's what you saw pouring from a full-sized stage, and that's what you get, only in spades, flooding the tiny black-box theater in the Lesher Center. The show is an intense triumph on any level. The physical intimacy of some scenes has been cleverly staged so there is no nudity, but the intent is perfectly clear.

What the Center Rep production also has done is cast a variety of physical types to play the young people in the cast and two extremely versatile actors, Nancy Carlin and Jeff Draper, to play all the adult roles.

And the younger performers -- wow! -- sing, dance (great choreography by Juliana Monin) and act beautifully, creating memorable characters as they fly about the stage telling the story with extreme passion and grace. They are an impressive lot of performers who help bring an innocence and intensity to the production.

The band, directed by David Möschler, sits in an area where audience members are normally seated and becomes an additional part of the show, providing music as well as characters for the play, which is staged throughout the small auditorium.

The set, designed by Joshua Lipps, is simple, dominated by what appears to be dark ruins of a Gothic cathedral, a small set of performing levels and other pieces that are wheeled on and off during the performance.



Awakening just in time for Spring

Sally Hogarty
San Jose Mercury News
April 25, 2012

An enormously talented young cast brings to light all the insecurities, passion and outrage of teens responding to their own emerging sexuality in Center REP's production of Spring Awakening, playing through May 13 at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts.

Part of the company's Off Center season, the Broadway sensation becomes even more potent in the intimate Knight Stage III theater. Steven Sater adapted the rock musical from a controversial 1892 German play by Frank Wedekin, which was banned in Germany due to its frank subject matter. Sater and composer Duncan Sheik heighten Wedekin's criticism of the stifling morality of his time with biting yet sensual rock music.

Not lighthearted fare, this edgy coming of age musical takes place in a small, provincial German village, where many of the adults (all played beautifully by Nancy Carlin and Jeffrey Draper) don't always have the best interests of the young people at heart. The teens struggle with their heightened sexuality in a society that refuses to explain the facts of life. The musical nicely balances the joy and innocence of the young people with their growing awareness of the changes taking place both inside and outside of their bodies.

Melchior (a charismatic Tim Homsley) seems to have it all -- brains, popularity, a good family -- before events and his attraction to Wendla (the lovely Taylor Jones) turn his life and hers upside down. His schoolmate Moritz (a dynamic Andrew Humann) struggles to live up to his parents' expectations, while the young Martha (powerfully performed by Elizabeth Curtis) must deal with her abusive father. Meanwhile, the other young people attempt to understand all the new sensations they are feeling in a society that wants them to remain obedient children.

Sensitively directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, the work is staged with a minimum of props and set pieces. Designer Joshua Lipps' church-like backdrops, enhanced with John Earls' lighting and his spiral staircase/platform provide the perfect setting for choreographer Juliana Monin's stylized movements. Costumer Christine Crook reiterates the theme of change by putting the teens in pants too short and dresses too young.

But the music forms the heart of Spring Awakening, and Sheik's exhilarating score is more than given its due by musical director David Moschler and his wonderfully talented, versatile musicians. In this well-crafted musical, the violins and cellos echo the passionate longing of the characters while the drums beat out their frustrations.