Saturday, July 15, 2017

“Spring Awakening” comes alive at OnStage Playhouse

Never underestimate the power of small. We here in San Diego are lucky to have a variety of sizes of theatre venues to chose when deciding what interests us. We have the regional Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse right in our own backyards, not even counting South Coast Rep. to the north. If really ambitious, there is Los Angeles.

There is in between: Lamb’s, North Coast Rep. and then those without a permanent home, Intrepid, Roustabouts and Backyard Renaissance come to mind easily. I’m sure I’m missing some so forgive, please. In the scheme of things, though there are local small (lets say less than 100 seats) theatres like Moxie and Ion that many of my friends and acquaintances are just now learning.
Outstanding set design (photo Jean Lowerison) 
On the small side resides a 60-seat theatre in Chula Vista, OnStage to be exact. Recently it has produced some daring, thought provoking and excellent work in a tight space that has a long stage and no backstage for the actors to get from one side of the theatre to the other without having to run around the block in back of their building to enter from another side.

Teri Brown artistic director at OnStage is a risk taker. She’s also excellent at what she does leaving no stones unturned. Her current production of “Spring Awakening” that she skillfully directs is an adult musical for teens. It rocked the theatre world when it first sprang to life. It was in concert form then. That was in the 90’s.

Fact: It began as a workshop at The La Jolla Playhouse in 1999.
Back then it was billed as this generation’s “Rent” and last generations “Hair”.

“Spring Awakening” with book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Dunkin Sheik and based on the late 19th century play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, is controversial to say the least. My guess is that in some circles even today it would it banned, as it was in repressive Germany in the late 1890’s.

Peter Armado and Truly Bailey
Abortion, homosexuality, child abuse (think molesting), rape masturbation; coming of age isn’t easy especially when children are left to their own resources or never had the ‘mother/daughter, father/son talk’. . Let’s get real.

Some in the song list include: "The Guilty Ones" , "Whispering", “The Bitch of Living” sung with animation by Seejay Lewis as Moritz and “Totally F**cked” by the boys. No holds barred here. 

Suffice it to say, parents must be prepared for ‘the conversation’ with their offspring as they are trying to cope with the confusions of their adolescence, the stirrings in their groins, and what to expect as they come of age especially when Wendla (a charming, shy and talented Truly Bailey) approaches her mother (Rebecca Miller plays all the adult women roles) about where babies come from (“Mama Who Bore Me?”).

When Mama is too embarrassed to tell her daughter about the birds and the bees, there’s a serious disconnect. Without any adult guidance she is left to her own devices and, you guessed it, someone was there to fill in the blanks (“The Word of Your Body”).

Wendla and Melchior (Peter Armando “All That’s Know”) make it happen by playing the scene out beautifully, realistically and with ease. It’s just one of those capturing moments in a production filled with highs. R. (back row)Alex Dunbar, Liam Galleher, Noah Filey, (front row) Jake Strohl, Peter Armado and Seejay Lewis
As the play explores the confusion and agony of these young people dealing with their own, and even each other’s sexuality, it takes a downward turn when Moritz, who is confused by his sexual fantasies, is flunked out of school as an expedient move by the headmaster (Anthony Donovan plays all the male adult rolls) even though he passed his grade. Moritz decides to end it all (“Don’t Do Sadness”).

Wendla becomes another statistic of what happens to innocence when ignorance takes its place. She too, becomes a victim of her own mother’s refusal to deal when she takes her daughter to a back street hack, who botches her abortion. 

Wedekind referred to the drama as “a tragedy of childhood” as it deals with this a group of school children just entering the age of puberty.  They explore the mysteries of life that they learn only through their own discovery, by way of sharing experiences and secret findings.

Others in focus include Marta (Kaitlyn Summers, singing the aching “The Dark I Know Well”). “For God’s Sake,… Papa will beat me to a pulp and Mama will lock me in the coal cellar for three nights.”

Ilse is another friend who runs away to live in an artist’s colony, (Sarah Ah Sing’s soulful and moving “Blue Wind” is heartbreaking as she realizes that there is no ‘there’ there’) and Jake Stroh’s shy and gentle Ernst and his love interest Hänchen (Alex Dunbar), is tender and telling as well. (“The Word of Your Body”. Reprieve) For the most part though, Moritz, Melchior (“Left Behind”) and Wendla are the main focus.

Seejay Lewis, Peter Armado and Truly Bailey
The musical moves along in part like a dream sequence. Credit Chad Oakley’s lighting design that focuses on some while others are moving about in darkness.

Patrick Mayuyu’ choreography noticeably different than anything seen in similar productions is more subdued with more hand expressions is eye-catching/ mesmerizing.
Musical direction is by Martin Martiarena. There are five very young (ranging in age from 17 to 22), extremely talented and disciplined musicians on stage keeping the music alive and the cast in touch. Julian Sink designed the sound.

Photo by Jean Lowerison
Speaking of stage/set a big Bravo goes out to Chad Oakley for the most imaginative and eye popping set design. On either side of the stage two book trees, (drilled through so cable wires are strung through) are suspended from the rafters.

On the stage floor itself, in what looks like a chalkboard, Melchior’s daily diary entries are scrolled from end to end. Pictures and rolling ladders are on and off to the sides as props for the actors. Knick-knacks filling the cubbies across the back walls are surrounded by painting recognizable and not. Chairs are brought in/chairs are removed depending on what the scene needs. This is a see to believe set, especially the book trees.

L. to R. Kaitlyn Summers, Noah Filley, Truly Bailey, Liam Gelleher and Pamela Basurto
The costumes, designed by Pam Stomploy-Erickson, were the only production values that didn’t seem to jive with my senses. Each of the boys, even though in a tough regimented school setting where discipline would have been key, wore clothes that didn’t match or follow a strict dress code.

The finale, “The Song of Purple Summer” the most poignant, is one of moving on… “a time when the painful spring of adolescence reaches the maturity of summer”. (Sater).

Hope springs eternal.

Bring tissues; it’s a tear- jerker. The 13 -member ensemble, some with more finesse than others, are youngsters themselves. Guessing they know from whence they came.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 12th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619.422.7787
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, CA
Ticket Prices: $25.00

Photo: Adriana Zungia-Williams


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