Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: 'Spring Awakening" at Manoa Valley Theatre

When Manoa Valley Theatre in Honolulu announced the Hawaii premiere of the musical ‘Spring Awakening’ as part of their 2011-2012 season, there was a question if the show would remain as provocative in a community theatre as when it premiered in New York City in 2006.

Audiences can be assured that the local creative team behind this ‘Spring Awakening’ have not tinkered with the subject matter and will likely surprise or even stun those unfamiliar with the work.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play of the same name, this rock musical adaptation depicts a dozen young people making their way through the thrilling, complicated, dangerous and mysterious time of sexual awakening: masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide.

The musical retains its 19th century European time period and MVT costume designer Dusty Behner have dressed the actors appropriately: the girls covered in long dresses (think “Little House on the Prairie”) and the boys in matching black school uniforms. This plays in stark contrast to composer Duncan Sheik and book writer/lyricist Steven Sater’s pop-rock songs and the set designed by Andrew Doan that splits the stage into two levels. Most of the action takes place in front of white walls that span the length of the stage upon which the cast fills with graffiti throughout the performance. The upper level playing area has a background depicting buildings and structures of the era.

Leading the excellently chosen young cast is Elise Levin and Jonah Ho’okano. Levin plays the innocent and questioning Wendla who by her curiosity entices her radical classmate Melchior (Ho’okano). No doubt their scene at the end of act one will be the controversial talk during intermission. Both are fine actors who never once appear coy or uncomfortable in their roles.

Elise Levin (Wendla) and Jonah Ho'okano (Melchior)
(photo credit: Manoa Valley Theatre)
'Spring Awakening' company.
(photo credit: Bruce Asato)
Another storyline follows Moritz, a doomed student played by Garett Taketa who seems oddly a bit more mature than his co-stars but reveals a confused vulnerability. Among the peripheral players Joel Libed as Hanschen offers moments of comic relief. His arrogance in his scene with the fragile Ernst (Gerald Mandac) is tempered to reveal depth and poignancy.

Craig Howes and Liz Stone play all the adult roles and though they competently play the authority figures, both fail to punch up their dialogue losing several moments of humor and insight into the morals of the time.

But it’s the songs of Sheik and Slater that will entrance audiences. Titles such as “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” may aim to shock but become show stoppers for the cast. Just as captivating are “My Junk” and “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”. Its score is one of the most unique, memorable and has no comparison that has played the Great White Way. Many may akin the music to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” but the scores are not similar and comparison unfair. There’s moodiness in Sheik’s score that is very different to Larson’s music.

Unusual and fascinating, ‘Spring Awakening’ is likely to attract audiences especially through word of mouth among the students at nearby schools and University of Hawaii. An extension would be in order in hopes that many others will be willing to take a chance and discover this Tony Award winning best musical.  MVT takes a gamble and produces a version that is different from the Broadway original and it pays off artistically and critically.

‘Spring Awakening’ is presented at Manoa Valley Theatre in Honolulu. Performances run March 8, 2012 to March 25, 2012; 7:30pm Thursdays, 8pm Fridays; 3pm & 8pm Saturdays and 4pm Sundays. Ticket prices: $35 general; $30 seniors and military; $20 for those 25 and younger. Unreserved seating. Auditorium opens 30 minutes before curtain time. The production is recommended for ages 14 and older and contains very strong language, sexual situations and partial nudity. Visit manoavalleytheatre.com for tickets and information. Call 808-988-6131 or visit the theatre box office at 2833 East Manoa Road. (Review of 3/10/12 performance).

Garett Taketa (Moritz) and Craig Howes.
(photo credit: Bruce Asato)
'Spring Awakening' company (photo: Manoa Valley Theatre)


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