North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s community-theater production of Spring Awakening, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, is not for the faint of heart. Based on the 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, this Tony Award®-winning rock musical explores teen angst, sexuality, and self-discovery in late 19th-century Germany.
Despite the “innocent” era in which it is set, the content nonetheless rings true today. Indeed, such relevant modern subjects as education, sexuality, self-expression, youthful passion, tyrannical education systems, and “parentocracy,” are even more poignant and raw when set in a “simpler” time and viewed through the lens of modern-day experience. In this musical adaptation, the intense physical desires of children just coming into their sexual bloom combines with their craving for knowledge during an exceptionally oppressive time period; and the result is an explosion of exuberance combined with destruction that is practically Shakepearean.
And that’s exactly what NRACT director Timothy E. Locklear accomplishes in the final production of the 2017-18 season for the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. Locklear has cast an incredibly talented group of actors and has allowed them freedom to deliver intense, provocative performances. Especially noteworthy are Ford Nelson, who plays the ill-fated Melchior with a raw, fearless passion, and Nathan Hamilton, whose doomed character Moritz flutters from youthful zeal to despair with such wild abandon that it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by his eventual fate. Natalie Soto’s Wendla, whose relationship with Melchior and utter innocence regarding sex is central to the musical, is brimming with sweetness which transforms into a heartrending strength that ultimately comes too late. The vocal power of the entire cast was exceptional, flowing with the score as it ranges from ethereal folk to alt-rock to powerful ballads.
A standout performance of “The Dark I Know Well” was especially gripping, with Faith Jones making great use of the short but powerful story given her character Martha. Lauren Knott also stood out as Ilsa, the only youth who has escaped the sexual oppression of her peers and lives a carefree Bohemian life as a model and artist; she floats across the stage and brings a lightness that the play needs to strike a proper balance.
Heather Shinpaugh delivers a commendable performance, tackling every adult female role utilizing little more than simple costume changes. Likewise, Ted Willis’ performance of every male adult, from authoritarian school head to abusive fathers, ranges from daunting to heartrending.
The set design by Miyuki Su goes hand in hand with Victoria Barnes’ lighting design. Su’s set is all bare walls and strong, rigid lines — evoking the oppression by the adult world imposed upon the youthful characters — and the lighting captures the very heartbeat of the musical and follows the emotional journey of the angsty teenagers. Utilizing everything from onstage light pillars to gobo effects to hand lights manipulated by the actors themselves, Barnes transforms the imposing space into open fields, harsh classrooms, steamy haylofts, and lonely churchyards.
Choreographer Aya Wallace shows great talent in her work, giving the actors evocative dance movements that express longing, desire, frustration, joy, and despair. Set pieces are kept to a minimum, with chairs, tables, and few props whisked on and off stage to create settings without causing distraction.
This musical is fearless, containing scenes that explore burgeoning sexuality; abuse (both psychological and sexual); bullying; self-discovery of sexual orientation; and masturbation, rape, and suicide.
Director Tim Locklear cleverly picks his battles, staging some subjects with unapologetic rawness, and others with tender reservation, effectively taking the audience through the tumultuous journey of teenagers trying to understand the confusing world around them. It is not an easy musical to experience, but I would encourage theatergoers to see it more than once.
This musical is the kind that stays with you long after it ends, and grows on you with each viewing. With the talent and skill on display at NRACT, you’ll find each performance as gripping and stirring as the last.
SECOND OPINION: June 2nd Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/06/brave-fearless-direction-and-pertinent-subject-matter-make-spring-awakening-a-must-see-musical/; May 30th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/spring-awakening/Event?oid=14653097; and May 18th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh preview by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Days-After-NBC-Cancels-Rise-NRACTs-Artistic-Director-Opens-Up-About-SPRING-AWAKENING-20180518.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents SPRING AWAKENING at 3 p.m. June 3, 8 p.m. June 8 and 9, 3 p.m. June 10, 8 p.m. June 15 and 16, and 3 p.m. June 17 at 7713-51 Lead Mine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27615, in the Food Lion Shopping Center.
TICKETS: $20 ($17 students and teachers, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-866-0228, email@example.com, or https://tickets.nract.org/#/event-details/spring-awakening.
WARNING: NRACT cautions, “[This play is] for mature audiences only. [It contains] adult themes/language/nudity.”
Spring Awakening (2006 Off-Broadway, 2006 Broadway, and 2009 West End musical): (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4272 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/spring-awakening-448809 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1417099/ (Internet Movie Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_Awakening_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Duncan Sheik (music): http://duncansheik.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/10085 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/duncan-sheik-448812 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0790854/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_Sheik (Wikipedia).
Steven Sater (book and lyrics): http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/steven-sater/ (Ensemble Studio Theatre bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/32067 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/steven-sater-448813 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2766741/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Sater (Wikipedia).
Timothy E. Locklear (Wake Forest, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/telock335 (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.