JOHNSTOWN -- “A story once banned from the British stage due to its celebration of adolescent sexuality and its impassioned attack on conventional morals has made a comeback as a rock musical. Teenagers have been so keen to get their hands on tickets for ‘Spring Awakening’ that organisers were forced to extend its run before the critics have seen it.”
This observation, by Vanessa Thorpe of “The Guardian” in 2009, helps explain why the program bios of numerous cast members of CLT’s splendid production are so passionate about being a part of the show and why there were so many young people in the audience at Friday night’s opening.
If “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Godspell” were rock musicals that appealed to my generation, this is one that does to today’s teens. The common denominator of all four enterprises is, of course, speaking truth to power---the power being parents, schools, religion, and traditional mores.
The young students at the heart of this story (the musical is adapted from an 1891 script by German playwright Franz Wedekind) are asking the important questions of adolescence: What is sex? What is love? What is friendship? What is education? What is my purpose in life?
Among the songs are “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” “The Dark I Know Well, “The Mirror Blue Night,” and “Totally F-----,” titles that suggest the generally dark tone of the plot, at the heart of which are young lovers Wendla (Ashley Polidore) and Melchior (Kent Benwell), whose brief affair ends in disaster. Disaster of another sort also awaits the misunderstood Moritz (Justin Newkirk). The singing and the acting of this trio are first-rate.
In fact, my reservation about the script concerns this monochromatic tone. While there are amusing moments, there’s not much irony. Then again, if I can recall rightly, most of adolescence feels deadly serious because issues like suicide, domestic violence, sexuality (both hetero- and homo-, to say nothing of trans-), and abortion are so challenging to contemplate in a culture that often won’t talk honestly about them.
Two quibbles about a production that is otherwise thrilling from top to bottom: director Justin Newkirk’s decision to have some of the action take place on the apron of the stage is problematic because the seats aren’t raked: we had difficulty seeing a couple of scenes. And Michael X. Bevington, who is adept at playing various adult male roles, frequently speaks so quietly and upstage that his words are lost.
What can I say about the ensemble work? Newkirk and Bevington (music director) have brilliantly trained the actors to sing and move (a nod to dance captain Polidore) as one. Virtually every number pops with harmony and spot-on choreography, and the fact that this enthusiastic, 17-member cast is performing to prerecorded music with such accuracy is remarkable. And the stage pictures vividly illuminate the core emotions of each scene.
If you are anywhere in the Johnstown area today or through next weekend, get to CLT and, as Newkirk says in his director’s note, “...open yourselves up to the real message of today’s story.” I might add that the questions many of 2018’s young people have about guns certainly complement the age-old ones they ask here.
WHERE: Colonial Little Theatre, 1 Colonial Court, Johnstown
WHEN: through April 22
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 518.762.4325 or [email protected]