First Omaha Run for Spring Awakening

Barn’s Troubled Teens, Chanticleer’s Happy Days

Spring Awakening won eight Tony awards and four Olivier honors, so it’s surprising that we haven’t had a chance to see it in Omaha. The Blue Barn remedies that glaring absence with its production of the musical opening this weekend.

A few of you, including the Barn’s music director and accompanist, Mitch Fuller, drove down to Lincoln for its brief stop there which sold out quickly. Producing and artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer caught it in Denver, where she approached it with trepidation.

“We’d done the original play at Purchase,” the State University of New York campus attended by the Barn’s founders, so Susan was wary of the musical. Her reaction is best evidenced by the fact that she obtained its rights “the day it was released.”

Ticket demand should be heavy, but it runs a full six weeks, through June 17. This isn’t your average musical, as proven by the way the New York Times introduced it to readers. The writer listed ways theater-goers think of Broadway musicals, including “bring the kids and leave the I.Q. at home,” then added:

“Probably nobody thinks of: pure sex."

“That might just change. A straight shot of eroticism opened last night. For all its frankness about the quest for carnal knowledge, it is blessedly free of the sniggering vulgarity that infects too many depictions of sexuality on stage and screen.”

And that summary, despite the “blessedly free” part, might mislead, the director admits. When her young cast members, playing the teen-agers that some of them are, present these scenes, “It’s a more innocent and pure take on the repression and awakening” youth experiences. “We don’t have to sex it up.”

The play by Frank Wedekind in the late 19th century was so controversial that it was banned, then first produced, heavily censored, 15 years after it was written. Candid portrayals of abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide kept it off the boards.

One source called it “an uncompromising gaze at the trials, tears and exhilaration of teen years,” but any synopsis seems dominated by dark events. Clement-Toberer reminds that the title is Spring Awakening and “Spring is a beautiful time with things coming to life, beginning to grow, with moments of extreme emotion.”

She cast Equity actor Jill Anderson and another professional, Barn co-founder Hughston Walkinshaw, as all the adults, primarily parents and teachers, none very sympathetic. “I’ve just been waiting for the right role to bring Hughston back, and he was available so it all worked out.” Jill has often appeared in Barn productions as well.

Then the director held auditions for the teen-age roles and had the “biggest turnout in our history.” She cast Marian High student Kate Johnson, who just turned 17, and collegian Sam Swerczek as the lead teen-agers, Wendla Bergman and Melchior Gabor. David Ebke plays Moritz, one of the more troubled teens.

Better-known actors such as Bill Grennan, Chris Fowler and Brian Zealand, are joined by talented newcomers. Fuller on keyboard will conduct a four-piece band.

Young Wendla laments that her mother gave her “no way to handle things” when puberty came along. Moritz worries about his erotic dreams and needs Melchior to convince him that he’s not insane. In other words, parents and teachers fail to inform them.

Ignorance leads to tragedy in these young lives, and it should come as no great surprise when Swerczek as Melchior sings that he’s “Totally F—ked.” And it’s no synonym for “loved.”

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On the other hand, if you think of musicals in more conventional terms, Chanticleer is opening Happy Days the same weekend. Director Todd Brooks promises that its famous teen-agers live up to its cheery title.

“It does capture the spirit of the TV show,” he says, pointing out that Garry Marshall, the series creator, “actually penned the book” and “He creates the same conflicts, poking fun at the series but not belittling it.”

So we get Stephen Michael Shelton as the Fonz, Matt Hemmingway as Richie Cunningham, with Tim Daugherty and Denise Putnam as the Cunningham parents. Add Morgan Herbener as Joanie, John Jones as Potsie, Chris Ebke as Ralph, and Tyler Butler as Chachi and all the rest of familiar characters.

Plus, Brooks notes, “a lot of great music by Paul Williams.” The show “even pokes fun at being able to solve a crisis in a half hour.” And it includes the Fonz jumping the shark, all in two hours.

Spring Awakening runs May 11-June 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays in June (no show Thursday, June 7) at the Blue Barn’s Downtown Space, 614 S. 11th St. Tickets are $25, $20 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.

Happy Days runs May 11-27 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays at Chanticleer Community Theater, 830 Franklin Ave., in Council Bluffs. Tickets are $17, $14 seniors, $9 students. Call 712.323.9955 or email manager@chanticleertheater.com.

posted at 02:54 pm
on Friday, May 04th, 2012

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