“Spring Awakening,” which opens Friday at Crown Uptown Theatre, won eight Tony Awards on Broadway in 2006 and four Olivier Awards in London – including best musical on both sides of the Atlantic. It also snagged a Grammy for the cast album.
But make no mistake: The folk/alt rock musical that deals with teenage sexual awakenings in all their joys and tragedies is not a show for everyone, said Matthew Rumsey, Crown’s producing artistic director, who will be directing this new production that runs through Aug. 31.
Set in 19th-century Germany, the story – adapted by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater from a once-banned 1891 play by Frank Wedekind – deals with such topics as sexual abuse, incest, rape, abortion, homosexuality and suicide. And the portrayal, including adult language, can get uncomfortably explicit, Rumsey said.
“It is definitely adult, but I have adapted it for Wichita by softening some of the language and doing away with nudity in one scene. The f-word will be used, but not as explicitly as in the original script,” Rumsey said. “Instead, we took a clue from the Tony Award telecast and are hushing some of the words, like naughty kids saying them under their breaths.”
Rumsey, who made similar modifications to the mental illness-themed “Next to Normal” last year, says the toning down won’t blunt the meaning or impact of the show.
“I knew it was something we could work around because ‘Next to Normal’ became one of our biggest successes. ‘Spring Awakening’ is such a beautiful, emotional story that I didn’t want it to be overshadowed by questions of language or nudity,” Rumsey said.
There will also be a couple of technical changes from other stage versions, notably running the one-hour, 48-minute show straight through without a break to prevent derailing the emotional buildup. As a two-acter, the show breaks in the middle of essentially a date rape scene.
And instead of inviting some audience members to sit on stage among the actors as fellow students in a classroom, the Crown Uptown stage has been extended into the audience.
“We’ll bring the show right up to the audience,” Rumsey said.
Among the main players is the handsome, headstrong, charismatic Melchior, who is wise – some would say wiseguy – beyond his years because he is a voracious reader. His best friend is Moritz, a flighty, nervous naif, who is both fascinated and horrified by the idea of sex and who perpetually worries about being a failure.
“Melchior is a bit of a radical for his time. He’s a very smart kid whose progressive parents let him explore without hiding things from him,” said New Yorker Brian Muller, an Equity actor (Crown’s first) who did the national tour of “Little House on the Prairie: The Musical.”
“But his intelligence lets him see the hypocrisy in society and it often gets him into trouble,” said Muller, who will be a senior at Carnegie Mellon University this fall. “What I like about him is his conviction. But at his age, he lacks perspective. He wants to do the right thing but he can be a bully about it. The show is about the weight of knowledge and the power of withholding it.”
Playing Moritz is Colin Anderson, a recent graduate of Oklahoma City University, who played the ghostly son Gabe in last year’s “Next to Normal” and who just finished playing teen heartthrob Link in Crown’s “Hairspray.”
“Poor Moritz is the most misunderstood character. He’s a troubled kid. He’s naive. He’s sad. He’s driven by sexual curiosity. He wants answers but he’s afraid of them,” Anderson said. “I can connect with him in that I was a late-bloomer in high school. I was confused like him.”
Anderson said he can also relate to Moritz’s fear of disappointing his demanding father. In the show, it’s Moritz’s academic failures. In real life, Anderson said, his father was “tough on me” about music studies.
“I could recognize his (Moritz’s) father’s stern disappointment. When I first saw the show, it rocked my world,” Anderson said.
Among the female characters are Wendla, a childhood friend of both boys, who is a hopeless romantic eager to bloom, and Ilse, another childhood friend, who ran away from home to live by her wits on the street after she was sexually abused by her father.
“Wendla is innocent and pure, but she has so much curiosity about things that she is a little reckless. She is not afraid to ask questions, even if they make others uncomfortable. She’s ahead of her time,” said New Hampshire native Stephanie Hogan, a New York-based actress and graduate of Carnegie Mellon who is making her Crown debut. This will be her second production of “Spring Awakening.”
“I really like that she is not blindly accepting. I admire that she realizes that knowledge is power. But she is a little too trusting in love because of her inexperience. And that puts her in tragic circumstances,” Hogan said. “She doesn’t know enough to look before she leaps.”
Playing the street-smart Ilse is Shannon McMillan, best remembered here as the mother slowly going crazy in “Next to Normal” last year as well as scatterbrained, tone-deaf Kristine in “A Chorus Line.”
“I love Ilse’s spirit. Even in her darkest time, she finds the light. She was abused by her father, but rather than sit and hide in shame, she took action and left home to become a Bohemian. She is determined to find her place in the world – always with a smile,” says McMillan, a Wisconsin native who studied classical theater in Minneapolis and most recently has been a featured singer/dancer on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in Europe.
Other students in the show are Hanschen (Dylan Lewis), a humorous but arrogant guy who tries to seduce the delicate and gullible Ernst (Joe Consiglio); Martha (Natalie Swanner), another victim of sexual abuse; Georg (Austin Stang), who lusts after his busty piano teacher; Otto (Scott Thomas), who has disturbing dreams about his mother; Thea (Ashley Lauren), Wendla’s best friend; and Anna (Jennifer Apple), Martha’s best friend.
All 14 adult roles, from parents to teachers to a priest and an abortionist, are taken by only two people wearing lots of different hats: Luke Johnson and Stephanie Gilmore.
The music director is James Dobinson, the choreographer is Gigi Gans, and set designer is Greg Crane, with lights by Dan Harmon, sound by Joshua Gordon and Matt Butler, props by Stephanie Dennis and costumes by Dora Arbuckle.