The University of Minnesota has never had a performance opportunity like this before. Not only has it been four years since the Theatre Department has put a musical on stage, never has there been a musical of this magnitude. For the first time in history the University has partnered with Theatre Latté Da for the regional premiere of the Broadway smash hit: Spring Awakening. In this review I will focus primarily on the design aspect of the show, since I am writing this primary for my stage tech. class and secondarily for my blog. So strap in and enjoy my critique of U of M and Theatre Latté Da’s regional premiere of: Spring Awakening.
Spring Awakening is based off a play written by Frank Wedekind of the same title. The show takes place at the turn of the century in Germany. The main focus of the play is teenage sexuality. The play shows how wary the German population is in discussing sex with their children. This leads to an unwanted teenage pregnancy, a botch abortion death, and suicide. With this play taking place over a hundred years ago and in another country, it is startling how relevant the subject matter is today. Parents in America still don’t teach their children the best sexual practices. With television shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom one starts to wonder why we are still holding onto are Puritan roots even as society has drastically changed. With the country focused on a contraceptive debate right now, as well as an argument of abstinence only versus full sexual education Spring Awakening is as relevant as ever.
The design elements of this show truly come together to get across the blaringly obvious message that America needs to hear. In this review I will single out each design element specifically and talk about what worked and what did not. First, lets talk about the acting. The cast of this show is truly phenomenal. Since this is a join partnership between Theater Latté Da and the University there is a mixture of professional actors and students on stage. Not to slight the professionals, but rather commend the students, I could not tell the difference between the students and the professional. The cast had very demanding choreography and kept the high energy and intensity throughout the entire show.
The first design element I would like to focus on is costumes. Richard Hamson did a fantastic job with costumes. The plain and starchy uniforms that the students wore in this show totally added to the rigid and authoritarian feel of the school. Ilse’s costume truly separated her as a bohemian and an outsider to the rest of the town. The most powerful piece of costuming in this show though was the nightgown featured in the number “The Dark I know well.” In this song Martha sings about her father’s physical and sexual abuse. The inappropriateness of the nightgown for a father to give to his daughter makes the rape scenes she sings about just come to life. This song brought me to tears and I could not keep my eyes off the nightgown the entire time it was on stage.
The second Design element I would like to spotlight is lighting. Jonathan Offutt did an excellent job with lighting. In my opinion the best lighting design is lighting that I do not notice. If a designer is doing his job then his work melts me into the world of the stage. For the most part I liked all his choices. The lights shifted really subtle to reflect the mood shifts from big rock numbers to more somber personal solos. That being said I do have two major grievances. First The Broadway-ey lights that were onstage in the backdrop really distracted me. They only came to life in big rock numbers such as “The Bitch of Living” but they really pulled me out of the show. Lastly and worst of all, I hated the choice to use spotlights in the solo numbers. This is such a Broadway cliché. Overused and boring.
The next design element to put on a pedestal or the chopping block is scenic design. Jonathan Offutt’s design for the world of this stage was both perfect for a thrust space and radically different than the Broadway version I saw. I loved the choice to put the band above the action. They were on display to see them work if you wanted to, but they were also enough out the way to not distract you from the action on stage. I think the most ingenious feature this simple design was the platforms that extended off the thrust right into the audience. This gave the cast plenty of room to express their angsty teenage voices. Bob Rosen talks about how the set design is very important for building a space for the actors to play. With ladders, platforms, and fireman’s poles the choreographer was granted a whole realm of possibilities. The set was probably my favorite design element of the show. The set also very much compliments the lighting which makes sense since Offutt designed both.
The final design element I would like to highlight is also in my opinion probably the strongest. Tom Sandelands did an excellent job with the sound design. This is a hard show. You have about a dozen and a half live mics that have to withstand running, jumping, climbing, and falling. Not to mention you have to find balance between live string instruments such as cello between a pounding electric guitar, bass, and drum kit. All of this came together with beautiful balance. The music at time had more beautiful mixing than the Broadway cast recording (which I listen to religiously). That being said there were a few times mics weren’t on when they were supposed to be on. The soundboard operation made the right choice in my mind in letting the singers finish acapella, instead of highlighting the error by bringing the actor in mid-song.
Since I saw the original Broadway production of this show it is really hard to not compare and contrast the productions. I was very grateful that this show was taken in enough of a different direction that as I was sitting in the audience I found myself comparing and contrast design, directorial, and acting choices. It is very disheartening to see the big Broadway tours that are just carbon copies of what was originally on stage in New York. This show was really a mixed bag. I like some choices a lot better and I disliked other a lot. I am a reviewer who is very interested in stakes. If there aren’t stakes in art then there is not point to. So if I could only choose one production and the other was erased from the history of the universe I would say this show is the heavyweight champion. Congratulations on a powerful, moving, and thought provoking production.