In 2006, ‘90s one-hit wonder Duncan Sheik and playwright Steven Sater teamed up to transform Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play, “Spring Awakening,” into an epic Broadway musical. The resulting product, which explores self-discovery and maturation in an oppressive society, went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It also launched the careers of Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff, both of whom went on to become household names three years ago for their prominent recurring roles on the Fox musical/dramedy show “Glee”
This fall, that show is finally making its way to the Western Michigan Universty Theatre.
Starring Alicia Humphrey and Bello Pizzimenti (in the roles that made Michelle and Groff famous) and directed by WMU musical theatre mastermind Jay Berkow, “Spring Awakening” came together with an intensive audition process last spring and has been carefully building anticipation ever since, both for cast members and within the wider WMU community.
That anticipation will come to a head this Friday (Oct. 26), when the curtain rises on a nine-performance run within the Gilmore Theatre complex. But instead of bowing on the Shaw Theatre stage like many blockbuster musicals launched at WMU, Berkow has reinvented and re-staged the production to fit the Williams Theatre, an intimate “black box” environment with audience seating surrounding the stage. The implications of that shift will make “Spring Awakening” a much different experience than what show audiences may expect or be familiar with.
“Because of budget, we wanted to scale it down but didn’t want to lose any of the impact or power of the show,” Berkow said. “I asked myself, ‘How can I approach the piece and serve it without the sets and spectacle?’ and I realized that it didn’t really need those things. Staging it in the round, having the audience on all four sides allows the show to be true to its nature. What’s different about ‘Spring Awakening’ is that the songs almost exist as a separate play that explores the emotions of the characters, interacts with the audience and forms a very intimate relationship between them.”
But while Berkow’s innovative staging certainly sets WMU’s production of “Spring Awakening” apart, it is ultimately still the show’s evocative themes and controversial subject matter (as well as its weighty performances) that leap to the forefront. Criticized in some circles for its unsettling depictions of sex, suicide and abortion, “Spring Awakening” is a challenging piece in almost every category, a factor that presented some serious emotional hurdles for the cast to clear. According to Berkow, however, the difficult subject matter was a big part of the appeal.
“This 120-year-old play still resonates today,” Berkow said. “The subjects are still controversial and relevant right now. It still evokes people to bring their own experiences to the play and that was very important to me. It’s challenging because of the emotional commitment it takes to play these characters and evolve them through the music. For our actors to live these powerfully evocative, life-changing moments, they have to really understand what it feels like to make these choices, be in these situations.”
Humphrey agreed with her director, stressing that, while the production certainly has its controversial overtones, the subject matter is handled in a way that allows the cast to find deeper emotional nuances beneath the explicit or graphic surfaces.
“The sexual scenes actually come from a really innocent place,” Humphrey said. “I think it’s possible for viewers to look and say that everything is for shock value, but I don’t think it’s that at all. It’s truly about the innocence of these kids and their sexual awakening: they are discovering who they are, what it means to have these feelings and what it means to be alive and feel anything at all. For (co-star) Bello and I, it really wasn’t a big deal. We’re great friends, so the chemistry was easy, and visually, the sex scene is very choreographed anyway, almost like a dance.”
After months of preparation and rehearsals, Berkow is excited to show off all of the work he and his company have been doing.
I’m very excited to bring (“Spring Awakening”) to Western’s campus, Berkow said. “I think the students have worked so hard to create a truly beautiful production, and I think audiences are going to find it to be one of the most beautiful and exciting experiences they’ve ever had in the theatre.”
“Spring Awakening” will play at Williams Theatre for two weekends, with regular 8 p.m. performances on Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 1-3, 7 p.m. “early shows” on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 and 2 p.m. matinee presentations on Nov. 3-4. A free cabaret will follow the two opening performances. Tickets can be purchased at the Gilmore box office, by phone (269-387-6222) or online at www.wmich.edu/theatre/season/tickets. WMU students can buy tickets for $5 with a valid Bronco ID.