In a place that has hosted such decadent theater as a blistering "Cabaret" and a shockingly brutal "Trainspotting," it is stunningly surprising to find a morality play being staged in the tiny black box of Off The Wall Theatre.
But that’s what you get with the production of "Spring Awakening," the multiple Tony Award-winning musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik.
The show opened on Broadway in 2006 and won Tonys for Best Musical and eight other awards. It was billed as a "rock musical" about the angst of teenagers searching for the truth about the changes in their bodies, their outlooks, their desires and the raging of newfound hormones. It’s a sexy script and swept up New York when it opened.
Leave it to Dale Gutzman, the dangerous artistic director at Off The Wall and the director of this production, to turn a musical about teenagers into a play that is about so much more than horny kids.
Gutzman has staged a play about the exuberance of youthful passions, not just for a roll in the hay but also for a challenge to the status quo, the boundary the keeps the world from being a better place.
With a sparkling cast – headed by the charismatic Claudio Parrone Jr., and the marvel that is Alexandra Bonesho – this production is about honesty in all things, especially in the relationship between parents and children, teachers and students, and boyfriends and girlfriends. The moral is about truth in all things.
We are introduced to the concept of the difficulty parents have being honest with their children when Bonesho, a young woman who is about to become an aunt for the second time, asks her mother (Jocelyn Ridgely) to explain how babies come into the world. After a tortuous and ever evasive journey, it all comes down to, as mom explains it, just loving your husband. Love him enough, and voila!, here comes a baby.
Already we see where this is headed. The schism between the adult world and the world of young people is dramatized with a scene of boys, sitting rigidly in chairs while the schoolmaster (Gutzman himself) drills them in the ancient language of Latin. The boys know this is absolutely worthless, but they toe the line for fear of failure and embarrassment.
The main story of love is between Bonesho and Parrone, a smart and rebellious teen who bears a striking resemblance to James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" and Steve McQueen in "The Cincinnati Kid."
Parrone is grasping to put his arms around a world he wants to drive a truck through, and Bonesho is a trembling lovely who wants to explore being a woman but is unsure exactly how to go about it and unsure whether she should even try.
The passion between the two grows until the first act ends with a sensuous and semi-brutal scene that could either be a rape or such a wanton coupling that it took on the patina of something either good or bad, and we don’t know which.
The second act is filled with the gory details of what happens on the way to a denouement that finds teenagers who have died because of the failure of adults to be honest.
Moritz (Patrick McCann) has failed his Latin class and is not going to be allowed to move to the next grave. His father is ashamed, as is he. His life is, as teenagers often say and feel, over.
He gets a gun, prepared to end it all, but is interrupted by the slatternly Ilse, played with delicious abandon by Brittni Hesse. She wants him to join her in revelry, but he declines. As he thinks of the gun in his pocket he realizes if he had said yes, he might not be forced to blow his brains out, which he does.
His death spawns the best song in the musical, the marvelously touching "Left Behind," sung with deep and hopeless sorrow by Parrone and the company. It’s a moment that brings stark reality to what these kids are fully unprepared to deal with as they grow up.
No sooner do we leave the gravesite that we find out Bonesho is pregnant from her frenzied coupling with her new lover. Her mother decides to seek out an abortion and asks, forlornly, for an assurance that the procedure is safe. Assured that it is she watches her daughter, clutched in the hands of the doctor, be dragged off.
Of course it is not safe, and Bonesho perishes, only to be buried next to Moritz.
Among his many strengths, Gutzman shines at taking inexperienced and young actors and getting stuff out of them that even they didn’t know they had.
This is not a perfect production. Some of the singing is uneven. Some of the acting is not up to snuff. But the discipline and verve that they all bring to this production makes it a night for the kind of theater that makes you wonder why you haven’t seen this play before.
"Spring Awakening" runs through Aug. 2 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.