Spring Awakening – Wright State University

This is likely the least objective review I’ve ever written.  I mean, it’s my favorite show featuring some of the students that I’m closest to and adore the best.  They would have to had all worn Hitler mustaches and goose-stepped onto the stage in order to NOT get a good review from me.

If you never see anything Wright State ever produces, you must watch “Spring Awakening.”  It is a defining production in that all the things I rave about are here, from gut-wrenching emotional acting to unique direction to super production values.  This show has it all and it all just comes together in a special way.

Jon Hacker plays Melchoir Gabor and I have no reservations saying he is the best Melchior I’ve ever seen.  He – like director Joe Deer and the rest of the cast – seemed to truly understand the dialogue, the importance of the book, and conveyed all of it in ways that I’ve not seen done before.  Hacker has the most expressive eyes and he makes eye contact with the audience that pulls you into what he’s doing and makes you not want to look away.  I know him well; he’s one of the most humble and kind people I’ve ever met and to see him playing this character with the teenage angst and testosterone-fueled over-confidence is exactly how I would have directed him. He totally gets it.

Drew Helton (Moritz) is perhaps the most versatile actor in any theatre program I frequent.  When I heard he was cast I was surprised because in every other performance of this show I’ve ever seen, Mortiz is played as a spastic neurotic and I didn’t quite picture Helton this way.  And so, as WSU is prone to do, Mortiz was flipped upside down and given a stutter that made him sympathetic and likable and sad.  Likability is crucial for the emotional impact of his character arc and Helton completely hit the nail on the head.  I am not sure I would have given the character as deep a stutter if I’m being completely honest as it took away some impact from some of the lines, especially in the interplay between Moritz and Melchior yet I can’t fault Helton’s desire for realism and the stutter certainly felt authentic.  Helton is one of my favorite performers; no one plays awkward the way he can.

Tommi Harsch was cast as Wendla.  When I asked a graduate of WSU who he would cast in this role, he said, “Tommi, duh.”  It was a no brainer.  And after seeing her emote with such raw, real energy I get why this is so.  Wendla needs to be innocent but not ignorant and she needs to be playfully flirty while maintaining a sense of purity.  This is a tough balance for any actress but Harsch completely hit the mark.  I’ve never connected with the song “Whispering” in any production of this show before last night; I was sitting front row and Tommi’s tears were real and authentic (and caused my own to fall).  She is a superstar in the making.

Pivotal in the show are both the roles of Adult Men and Women.  If there’s a serious actor training anywhere in the region that’s better than Andrew Quiett, I haven’t seen him.  He projects an intensity that in unparalleled for an actor his age and just as in “The Miracle Worker,” its hard to take your eyes off of him.  Similarly, Chrissy Bowen who typically shines in comedic roles has really come into her own as a serious dramatic player.  She was especially delightful as Melchior’s mother.  Both of them bring a sense of class to their work.

Speaking of class, Ria Villaver (Ilse) was completely devastating.  Every time I’ve seen this show, she has been played as an impish, hippie fairy with a touch of sadness.  With Deer’s direction, Villaver was not positive. She was not hopeful.  She was desperate and her “funny” line about men trying to poke you with one thing or another had all the comedy stripped away and was delivered with such precise sadness, I gasped at its brilliance.   And with Ria’s powerhouse voice (matched with that of the vocal genius of Paige Dobkins), “The Dark I Know Well” has never sounded better.  

There was not a bad performance in the entire show.  All the actors and actresses (Caroline Gruber – who has a captivating quality, Lauren Schorr, Elizabeth Romey, Logan Torbet, Sean Jones – who gave me goosebumps with his vocal work, Justin King, and the amazingly subtle and enthralling Zachary Warner) demonstrated a true grasp of the material and the need to play it with gravity.  They took their time with delivery of lines and this deliberate approach made sure that everyone in the small black box heard every line.  The band was flawless (with one minor exception on “The Mirror Blue Night”) and I simply sat mesmerized throughout the show.  

If you had been sitting next to me, you would have heard my deep breaths as I tried to keep from completely losing it and my quiet utterances of amazement at some of the choices being made.  It was certainly unique and certainly emotional.  I’ve seen “better” productions; fancier lights, better sound quality, and even better singing.  But I’ve never seen any show with the raw, naked emotion than this production of “Spring Awakening.”  If you want to experience the Wright State difference, this is the show to see.

“Spring Awakening” plays through Sunday, November 18th.  Tickets are available by calling Victoria Oleen at 937.775.3072.

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