As it did for the mental illness musical “Next to Normal” last year, Crown Uptown has really stepped up its game from dinner theater entertainment to powerfully provocative experience with its new production of the controversial and award-winning (eight Tonys) “Spring Awakening.”
The musical by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/author Steven Sater, which is a regional premiere (and a bit of a coup for Crown), deals with the sexual awakenings of a group of young teens in the repressive environment of 19th-century Germany, when proper people didn’t speak of such things. The resulting clash of curiosity, confusion, experimentation, rebellion and, yes, tragedy makes for a riveting statement about the perils and costs of secrets.
Opening night had a few technical issues with the balance between voice and music seeming a bit off, muting some of the early songs and making some lyrics difficult to understand. Too, there was a minor (but noticeable) issue with sound effects not matching on-stage actions.
But the vocals from a compelling, attractive and enthusiastic young cast ultimately broke free and built to a triumphant finale, well supported by music director James Dobinson and his six-member, onstage combo.
By request of Crown’s producing artistic director Matthew Rumsey, audiences are asked to hold their applause until the end to keep from breaking the intense mood and escalating tension. Rumsey is even running the show straight through without its usual act break for the same reason.
The show contains strong adult language, but Rumsey has skillfully toned it down to suit Wichita audiences. There is enough to shock, grab attention and make a point, but not enough to be offensively gratuitous. Rumsey accomplishes that delicate balance without ceding the power of the story.
New York actor Brian Muller, making his Crown debut, is well cast as Melchior, a smart, darkly handsome and cynical class leader who claims that “sin is the product of education” and that there are three ways to approach life: Let history define you, rock the boat or bide your time and let the system work for you.
Muller has an assured grace as he moves about the stage, giving Melchior a calm facade while his brain is actually racing and champing at the bit of propriety. He’s the sex expert among his circle of friends because he read every book he could find on the subject. His voice has dramatic impact, whether charging through bratty rock beats with the guys or crooning through a hormone-laden, puppy love duet (“The Word of Your Body,” “The Guilty Ones”) with one of the girls.
Colin Anderson, just seen as heartthrob Link in Crown’s “Hairspray,” practically erupts on stage as the desperately needy Moritz, Melchior’s best friend, who is both obsessed by and terrified of sex and the messy changes of puberty. Moritz is both a comic character and a tragic figure, a range that Anderson pulls off superbly. He makes us laugh at his charming awkwardness with his unkempt spiky hair, but breaks our hearts when we realize he can’t save himself from his own naivete and missed chances (“Don’t Do Sadness”).
Stephanie Hogan, another New Yorker making her Crown debut, is compelling as the hopelessly romantic Wendla, who becomes a victim of sex because her mother forces her to remain ignorant of its pleasures or consequences (“Mama Who Bore Me”). Hogan gives Wendla a budding, perky presence that is yearningly but innocently sensual.
And Shannon McMillan, star of last year’s “Next to Normal,” is terrific as Ilse, a girl who runs away from home after being abused by her father and learns to survive by her own wiles and live by her own rules. McMillan is clear and powerful as the outsider who becomes sort of the voice for all the young hopefuls, exemplified by leading them in the finale, “The Song of Purple Summer,” when “All shall know the wonder….”
Dylan Lewis is charmingly devious as the class bad boy Hanschen, who sets out to seduce the sweetly trusting Ernst (Joseph Consiglio). Their love song is a surprisingly adept twist on the main couple’s “The Word of Your Body.” Natalie Swanner, Austin Stang, Scott Thomas, Ashley Lauren and Jennifer Apple provide solid and vital choral support as fellow classmates trying to come of age in a repressive society.
Luke Johnson (with his commandingly deep voice) and Stephanie Harter Gilmore are versatile chameleons delineating all 14 adult authority figures, from parents (both brutal and compassionate) to teachers (both stern and seductive) to a priest and even an abortionist.
The abstract, artsy set by award-winning Gregory Crane is particularly impressive, with a center runway into the audience that has a curved end looking like a skate park that the kids cavort on and over. There also are two chairs bolted high above the stage reached by ladders that characters scramble into for reveries, symbolically – and literally – without a net. And there are openings in the stage floor through which characters arrive and depart. Clever and intriguing.