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"Spring Awakening" show #886

At the time of seeing Fresno State University Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening, I had seen five previous productions of the Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play. At the time of seeing FSU Theatre’s production I had found myself, at best, entertained by voices, or emotionally-moved by some actors, but never thrilled that I spent two and half hours sitting in this show. I never figured out why and simply chalked it up to the show itself being not my cup of tea. However, at Fresno State, after the opening “Mama Who Bore Me” I knew I was in for a different production of Spring Awakening. By intermission, my mind had been changed; and by musical’s end, I found myself incredibly grateful that I saw this production. 

(Sitting: Tyler James Murphy (Melchior), Standing: Chloe Mae Tabor (Wendla); Photo source: University Theatre)

Director J. Daniel Herring has stripped away the often-used gimmicks and concert-like additions that most productions utilize. Items like hand microphones and a plethora of middle fingers in the act two rock-romp “Totally F*cked, have been done away with and, instead, Herring directs this show like a play that happens to have music. What I realized early on in the evening is that, unlike most musicals, most of these characters aren’t singing because they have to but are singing because they want to or it's to reveal their inner monologue. This streamlined, distraction-free concept serves the lines and lyrics in a most-effective manner, and is complemented by Dominick Callahan’s excellent scenic and projections design. The audience is immediately witness to large chalkboards with Latin phrases and math equations and formulas that are fixed throughout the production while mobile chalkboards are used as set pieces for walls, trees, etc. The image of the characters--the majority of whom are high school age--are always learning something, either from a hardship or from a peer. The notion of always learning, always listening is never lost on the audience as we embark on these characters' trials and few tribulations. Choices like these elevate the material to a level that made me finally appreciate this musical in a way I never thought I would.

(Chloe Mae Tabor (Wendla); Photo source: University Theatre)

Chloe Mae Tabor is perfectly cast as Wendla, the musical’s heroine who traverses innocence with interest, only to learn the hard way that pleasurable explorations can have devastating consequences. Tabor’s vocal timbre in song and higher, more childlike placement in scene is exactly what a Wendla, who fits in Herring’s production, should do. With Tabor’s piercing eye contact and physical expression when singing “The Word of Your Body,” and especially “Whispering,” lets the audience into Wendla's inner desire that her outer reality is not privy to due to her mother’s resistance of giving her “the talk.” Tyler James Murphy is a stalwart Melchior, taking on the charismatic-know-it-all-to-defeated-lover-of-Wendla in stride with his journey. At the time of the Switch-Whip scene, most Melchiors use these moments to show the transformation of Melchior's liberally minded tolerance to deep-seated inflictor of pain, but James Murphy waits. It’s not until we see him leading the next song, “The Mirror-Blue Night," that we witness the realization that he, even if just for a moment, is no better than the abusive men who have preceded him. James Murphy’s vocals fit nicely in “All That's Known” and in one of the few releases of laughter in his leading of the aforementioned “Totally F*cked.” 

(On Table: Grant Hill (Moritz); L to R: Tyler James Murphy (Melchior) and Diego Joseph Sosa (Georg); Photo source: University Theatre)

The supporting cast is universally strong, with specific highlights coming from a passionately tortured Grant Hill as Moritz, with “And Then There Were None” serving as a pinnacle of acting meeting singing; Mikayla Rockwell and Emma Raymond, as Ilse and Martha respectively, in a big-voiced, torturously impactful leading of “The Dark I Know Well;” and Diego Joseph Sosa as Georg, who shines with his riffs and belt in “Touch Me." Joel C. Abels and Amalie Larsen deliver emotional and nuanced precision to their Adult Men and Adult Women tracks . Abels delivers a full-capacity teary-filled father mourning the loss of his son followed, just moments later, with the demeanor of an intolerant educator out to expel any student he disagrees with. Larsen gives her many mothers and teachers levels of intensity, anger, and heartbreaking love, especially in her turn as Wendla's mom when she learns of Wendla’s state late in act two after an evening with Melchior; it's a choice I’ve rarely seen a woman in that track take, and it magnifies Wendla's fate even more.

(L to R: Joel C. Abels (Adult Men), Tyler James Murphy (Melchior), Amalie Larsen (Adult Women); Photo source: University Theatre)

Unifying Herring’s staging and vision is Sofia Arie James’s costume design, which weaves various shades of purple through the entire company in a way that makes sense of the anthem-esque finale, a gorgeously sung and appropriately simple staged “The Song of Purple Summer.” Joel Alaniz Ayala’s lighting design gives the visual energy and intimacy the score requires, and Josh Montgomery’s choreography comes alive with eye-catching formation work and organized movement turns that weave seamlessly between blocking and dancing. Jordan Williams leads a terrific live band, supporting Shannah Estep’s superb vocal direction, allowing this (me) usual poo-poo-er of Spring Awakening the opportunity to enjoy this show as if seeing it for the first time. 

(Cast of Spring Awakening; Photo source: University Theatre)

All the applause is due to the cast, crew, and team behind bringing this notable title to the University Theatre stage with fresh eyes and a fresh take that ensures the messages spoken and sung hit the audience the way they were meant to. Spring Awakening runs through this Saturday, May 11th, so do yourself a favor and book your ticket to this show and you can thank me later.

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