By Pat Launer
Review: ACT San Diego youth theater brings local prem iere of the Tony Award-winning musical to the Coronado School of the Arts.
Who can ever get inside the head of an anguished teenager?
“Spring Awakening,” winner of eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), aspires to do just that. The songs don’t advance the plot so much as reflect what young kids are thinking, fearing and fantasizing about.
Based on the scandalous 1891 play of the same name by German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind , the musical tackles topics that are still controversial, shocking or spoken in whispered tones: masturbation, child abuse (of the physical and sexual kind), homosexuality, botched abortion and teen suicide.
The show is provocative for adults, though its main characters are 14-15 year old teens. But when it’s performed by young people, that significantly raises the emotional stakes.
ACT San Diego, The Actors Conservatory Theatre, is unequivocally up to the challenge. They’re the first local company – youth or adult – to present the high-octane rock musical. A touring production came to the Balboa Theatre in 2008, a year after the show premiered on Broadway, and the musical was first workshopped in San Diego (1999, La Jolla Playhouse). Two other youth theaters will present the show later in the year, but ACT got first dibs. And its production will be a tough act to follow.
The assured and inventive director is Leigh Scarritt , a respected musical theater performer in her own right, as well as a highly regarded coach/mentor to young performers. Her talented daughter, singer/songwriter Tiffany Jane, created the stylized, energetic and effective choreography.
The entire (huge, 41-member) ensemble is driven by a sensational onstage band, helmed by music director/conductor/pianist Shane Simmons, vocal music instructor and musical director at Coronado School of the Arts. True to the original orchestrations, the band includes not only the requisite hard-rocking guitar, keyboards and percussion (Ian Lewis, Sarah Sabesky , Jacob Russell), but cello, violin and upright bass as well (Elijah Grote, Jeremy Panlasignui , Robert Johnson), which bring the mournful, lyrical tone the piece also demands, with its aching score by indie rocker/composer Duncan Sheik coupled with heart-rending book and moody, poetic lyrics by Steven Sater (both won Tonys for their efforts).
The only problem is, the music is so strong, and some of the miking so weak or unbalanced, that the voices are often drowned out, and there being a rather minimal amount of dialogue, the lyrics have to drive the action.
But what we do hear and catch is superb. Perhaps the two lovers at the center of the story (in this version, there is, thankfully, no intimation of rape in their coupling), are a tad weak vocally (in the alternating casts, I saw handsome Izzy Pollak as smart, philosophical, radical-thinking Melchior and lovely Haley Doyle as his naive but willing Wendla ). Their acting is strong, their emotions earnest, and their look great (pitch-perfect costumes by Janet Pitcher).
The knockout performance comes from Derrick Gaffney as Moritz, the morose misfit who flunks out of his snooty, punitive school and sees no escape but… well, I guess that’s a spoiler if you’ve never seen the show. Gaffney is so terrific he plays the difficult and demanding role in both casts. Not only does he sport the wild and crazy eyes and hair that have become Moritz’s trademarks, but his antic, gangly, angular moves are amazing.
Megan Marth as ethereal Ilse , Jordan De Leon as poor, abused Martha and the four-male backup singers (Michael Parrott, Apollo Blatchley , and the ‘gay boys’ played by Peter Armado and Dylan Mulvaney ) are standouts among the young performers. All the adults, portraying parents and teachers, are excellent: Eileen Bowman, Douglas Lay, Marc Sylwestrzak , Alex Ford, Heidi Maretz , Tiffany Jewell and Fred Harlow ( verrrry creepy in the added suggestion-of-pedophilia scene).
It’s the grownups, in their repressive, hypocritical, self-serving rectitude, who contribute to the agony of these young people on the cusp of adulthood. Neon splashes of background color (lighting by Lace Flores King) underscore the intense emotions, reflecting off the hard metal surfaces of the bi-level set (Scott Jones and Andrew Miller)
Though the tone of the piece is dark and disturbing, and several characters don’t make it to the finale, there’s a thin sliver of hope at the end. A determination to battle the system and the hormones and go on. Alas, a century after Wedekind’s time, the same issues and pressures assault the teens of today, in school, at home and onstage. More power to ACT and CoSA for giving voice to the difficult and dynamic.
The ACT San Diego production of “Spring Awakening” continues through August 14 at the Coronado School of the Arts Theatre, 650 D Street.
Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Saturday-Sunday at 2pm, Sunday at 6pm.
Tickets ($19-28) are available at www.actsandiego.com or at the CoSA box office.
Note: Mature Themes