Vocally Powerful Spring Awakening at Near West Theatre Soars With Brutal Honesty

Community Theatre

Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind

Growing up is a BITCH. For teenage students in 19th century Germany, it’s a fight just to be heard, let alone get any answers! Parents and teachers alike dismiss their questions, fears, and anxieties. With only the guidance of their peers, teens Moritz (Zack Palumbo), Wendla (Sarah Farris), Melchior (Robert Kowaleski), and Ilse (Moriyah Faith Jackson) struggle to navigate religion, morality, sexuality, and coming-of-age angst with heart-wrenching and devastating results.

Over 100 years later, young people still fight for reliable mentors to hear and support them, and without that guidance, teens, young adults, and even children can enter dark worlds of depression, sexual recklessness and assault, and suicide. Spring Awakening highlights the agelessness of this experience. Near West Theatre's decision to bring this musical to life was a brave and bold step in using its platform to heighten awareness. This show does come with a disclaimer regarding the issues addressed. As a result, this would not be marketed as family-friendly, but in reality, you would consider this family reality. This show is direct and incredibly thought-provoking. 

This particular story finds us in Germany, 1891, a world where the grown-ups hold all the cards. The beautiful young Wendla explores the mysteries of her body and wonders aloud where babies come from... until Mama tells her to shut it and put on a proper dress. Elsewhere, the brilliant and fearless young Melchior interrupts a mind-numbing Latin drill to defend his buddy, Moritz – a boy so traumatized by puberty that he can't concentrate on anything... not that the Headmaster (Mike Obertacz) cares. He strikes them both and tells them to turn in their lesson. One afternoon, in a private place in the woods, Melchior and Wendla meet by accident and soon find within themselves a desire, unlike anything they've ever felt. As they fumble their way into one another's arms, Moritz flounders to find his truth and soon fails out of school. When even his one adult friend, Melchior's mother (Amanda Bender), ignores his plea for help, he is left so distraught that he can't hear the promise of life offered by his outcast friend, Ilse. Due to devastating events, Melchior is expelled. Wendla learns the truth about intimacy. And soon, decisions are made that bring this tale to a crashing end. However, we are left with a message that through the pain, there is the undeniable need to not forget but to move forward.

The Near West Theatre Production, under the direction of Kelcie Nicole Dugger, is powerful, visually stunning, and without a doubt, one of the best summer Teen/Young Adult musicals produced here in a very long time. Dugger has done a tremendous job of casting this show. The subject matter probably caused a lot of angst for some people, but they should know the show is staged without sensationalism and is professionally focused and executed. Dugger's overall vision of the show is strongly on point and visceral.

As Wendla, Farris shares an incredibly powerful performance.  Ferris is radiant on stage, and her beauty is matched by her vocal delivery. Beautifully balanced presentation of innocence, and the inner drive of finding the truth. She exudes confidence, and her character arc is well developed and executed. Kowalewski as Melchoir just crushes this role. A fearless performance with incredible vocal work in which each song becomes an occasion. Definitive character work is on full display and executed with a professional polish. Powerful stuff. Every moment fully complete. Both Farris and Kowalewski are perfect in propelling this story. 

Zack Palumbo is a revelation. As Moritz, he embodies his character in deeply tortured realness. That friend we all know who is struggling and we can't seem to put our finger on it. Palumbo brings his bolt of kinetic theatre energy that electrifies every scene he inhabits with brilliant resonance. His powerful voice conveys the music with immense connectivity and emotion. You will remember this performance and performer. Jackson has the difficult task of giving Ilse a journey that is not a pretty one to watch. From the moment we see her, something is wrong. She weaves in and out of scenes, underlying a dark resonance that pierces the story. This is effective because she conveys the damage to this girl with sensitive acting and brutal truth. Her voice aches from pain, and a struggle for recovery of self-worth. Tough character because Ilse never gets a break emotionally. Jackson is devastatingly on point.

There are some fierce dynamic girls surrounding Wendla, multi-talented Zoe Douglas as Martha (her solo and monologue work was spectacular), Kater Brierley as Thea, and Paola Ayala as Anna. They lead the core of women who sing the anthems of awakening with great focus and believability. Their presence is never wasted and due to the depth of their character work, are achingly alive. Antonio DeJesus and Matthew Brightbill, as Hanschen and Ernst, bring incredibly integrity to their roles. Playing sensitive men who have to love secretly, and stay true to their feelings. Both gentlemen bring pure, well-acted honesty to the roles, without ever caving into overplaying the intimate scenes for shock value. Proving that gay love scenes can be beautiful and meaningful without taking off your shirt. Bravo!

There was some great solo work accomplished. Peter Bradley belted his face off as Georg during "Touch Me". Dripping with bombastic energy, this guy killed it. Nick Glavan also had a chance to vocally angst himself to the rafters as well. Great character work from each of them.

There are two Adults in the show, simply listed as Adult Woman, and Adult Man. Each one plays multiple characters in the show. Amanda Bender takes on the female roles of Frau Bergman (Wendla's Mother), Fraulein Knuppeldick, Fraulein Grossebustenhalter, Frau Gabor (Melchior's Mother), and Frau Bessell (Martha's Mother. Michael Obertacz inhabits Herr Sonnenstich, Headmaster Knochenbruch, Her Neumann (Ilse's Father), Herr Rilow (Hanschen's Father), Herr Stiefel (Moritz's Father), Father Kaulbach, Doctor Von Brausepulver, Herr Gabor (Melchior's Father) and Schmidt. Both actors are versatile and creative in giving each character a definitive physical and vocal identity. Bender is killing me as Fraulein Knuppeldick, as she speaks her lines as if she just swallowed an entire box of Cracker Jacks and their still in her throat. Obertacz gives a defining moment as a grieving father. Both actors should be commended for stepping into their roles during tech week. Truly a remarkable feat. Bravo. The company of actors that fills out this fierce cast is excellent. In true, Near West Theatre tradition, every face is intimately connected to the scene work, and deliver solid vocal power.

There were some observations. Sometimes, the convention of having the entire ensemble enter during songs longed for more private moments. However, that is one of the missions of including larger casts in the show. Although at points I just wanted to focus on the specific character exchange, to their credit, the ensemble is tight and focused. There was one moment where I felt it might have been a lighting cue, but when Moritz has his epiphany with mortality, closing to a blackout earlier would have been preferred. It kind of left Moritz with nowhere to go at scene end. There were some moments where the blocking between lead characters seemed a little bit back and forth to center, as noted in one Melchior and Wendla scene. But that is a small quibble.

The Production Team has delivered strongly. Music Director Scott Pyle beautifully guides the voices, and the band to a most effective sound and quality. Josh Landis gives us great interpretive choreography that certainly addresses the angst and sexuality, but doesn't cross the line to hysterics. And the dance and movement involved with the bungee cords were incredibly creative and effective, and simply interesting as heck to watch. Production Stage Manager Ryan Wolf called a great show. Technical Director Perren Hedderson did an excellent job of pulling the elements together and building an effective set. Set Designer Cameron Michalak once again brings his professional artistry to the foreground, and in this case, a playground of sorts. Scenic Artist Jenny Hitmar Shankland continues to produce brilliant artistry in her painting. Costume Designer Lady Jen Ryan got all the stitching right, as her costumes helped transport the story with precision and inspired period work. Lighting Designer Adam Ditzel brought his tremendous skills to the table, creating an amazing array of atmospheric art that greatly enhanced deep and sensitive moments in the show.  Sound Designer Josh Caraballo's Sound Design and the balance was on point.

Also, there is a table from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention located downstairs. Thank you to Near West Theatre for allowing public access to information for your patrons, cast, and production staff. AFSP.org 

This is not easy to watch. This will be tough for some because the show holds many triggers.
But, we need to hear this story to even begin to heal it.

Go see it. 
Discuss it.
Keep your eyes open to those around you.
Keep your ears open to those around you. 
Some bruises can be seen, some can’t.
Some voices can be heard, some can't. 
Be the voice that saves lives. 
Be the voice that can help uncover what is hidden. 
Be the voice that becomes a lighthouse for those in pain.

Image may contain: table, night and indoor
Photo Credit: Mark Horning
Ticket Information
and Promotional Materials

Through August 12

7:30 pm Thursdays
7:30 pm Fridays
7:30 pm Saturdays
3 pm Sundays (No Performance 7/29)

Content Advisories: MATURE CONTENT, including abortion, suicide, bullying, and language. Non-graphic depictions of sex, abuse, and death.

$8-$20 Reserved Seating

(216) 961-6391

Near West Theatre
6702 Detroit Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44102