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SPRING AWAKENING by Steven Sater & Duncan Sheik

July 04th, 2013

SPRING AWAKENING by Steven Sater (book, lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music)
Studio 58, Jan. 31-Feb. 24
604.684.2787 www.langara.bc.ca/studio-58

When The Playhouse crashed and burned last year, everyone expressed dismay and regret. In that same year, B.C.’s largest publishing house, D&M Publishers, nose-dived off a fiscal cliff, insolvent with more than $6 million in debts. The sky didn’t fall. To the contrary, three revitalized imprints have arisen from the collapse of D&M, all B.C.-owned and operated, and one can argue Vancouver’s theatre scene is as fertile as it’s ever been.

The Playhouse and D&M were imprudently managed and both suffered from a surfeit of hubris. Their disappearance now enables smaller and more efficient players to rise to the fore, to gain more attention, as the resources that were mishandled by the ‘big guys’ can, we hope, be redistributed to worthy up-’n’-comers. Yes, we really do need a regional theatre that will try every few years to give us Chekhov, but the splendid offerings of the PuSh Fest, as a recent example, and the plethora of shows currently on view, make it obvious that Vancouver theatre affords an abundance of choice.

These thoughts arise when leaving Studio 58’s lively, lascivious, uneven, rambunctious and thoroughly engaging production of Spring Awakening. We’re given to understand that rights for this much-in-demand Broadway musical—recipient of 2007 Tony Awards for both Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score—were transferred from The Playhouse to Studio 58, thereby enabling a fresh slate of students to cut their teeth on a very demanding show.

Somebody deserves a big thank you for that.

As directed by David Hudgins, the latest Studio 58 ensemble, most notably led by Stephanie Izsak, zestfully cavorts as sexually awakening teenagers in a suffocating, provincial German town of the late 19th century.

As anyone who has delved into Goethe’s The Sorrows of the Young Werther might vaguely recall, there was once an era in Germany that inspired a wave of teenage suicides—copycat suicides sparked by the protagonist Werther shooting himself with a pistol in the novel that Goethe published anonymously at age 24 in 1779.

More than one hundred years later, German playwright Frank Wedekind shocked Germany with his first major play, Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening), about how repressive forces, post-Goethe, were still unable to thwart youthful desire.

The hit Broadway musical adaptation in 2006, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, was more than happy to incorporate Wedekind’s smorgasbord of homo-eroticism (an intense kissing scene, wonderfully played at Studio 58 by Dominic Duschesne and Alex Strong), group male masturbation (four guys in a circle, trying to spurt onto the male lead), abortion (off-stage, after a puritanical mother refuses to give her daughter even a modicum of sexual instruction) and sado-masochism (a girl asking a boy to whip her). Hey, we almost forgot to mention the suicide.

At Studio 58, evidently affected by a disease that makes them do punk star leaps and twists in nearly every scene, the boys, all of whom are wearing grey short pants throughout, having been directed to do their Joel Grey-like-best to convince us that 18th Germany was homo-erotic to the core. It’s effectively creepy much of the time, as private schools can be; but programmed behavior of any kind makes it difficult for the audience to empathize.

There’s no way every second of Spring Awakening is flawless. In fact, it’s flaw-ridden, especially some of the singing. Go anyway. With a jam-packed audience of well-wishers, the exuberance on stage is infectious, even if it’s hard to comprehend a lot of the lyrics. Highlights include the climax of an energetic love-making scene between Ilse (Izsak) and her beau Melchior (Riun Garner) when they are lifted aloft by the ensemble, floating on a raft of temporary bliss, and a spirited rendition of one of the few songs for which the lyrics are readily understood, ‘Totally Fucked.’

Review by Paul Durras

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