Are these the days of “Purple Summer” for the Selma Arts Center?
They very well could be. The company’s current production of “Spring Awakening” is inspired. It crackles with a sense of creative energy and cohesion that suggests art at the highest level. Even in those occasional moments when the sense of assuredness falters — whether by individual performances, creative decisions that don’t quite work or technical flaws — the overriding feeling is one of focus and intensity that gives the provocative material an added sizzle.
I opened the doors of the theater after the opening-weekend performance I attended and marveled to myself: I can’t believe a production this edgy and this good is happening on sleepy High Street in downtown Selma.
Director Dominic Grijalva brings a compelling concept to Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 Broadway musical, which was itself based on a 19th Century play so shocking that it couldn’t be performed in playwright Frank Wedekind’s native Germany until more than a decade after he wrote it. Grijalva — who in the past few years as a director has displayed an innate ability to wrap his arms around a script and production and make them his inspired own — sets this tale of teenage growth and angst in a world of books. (The main component of Erik Andersen’s handsome set is a two-level library that has a lived-in, musty formality, and Dan Aldape’s astute and moody lighting design adds to the effect.) The teenage German characters have been strictly raised in a setting in which matters of sex are not discussed between parents and children.
Even though these detail-hungry boys and girls often carry books with them and peruse them throughout the production, there’s a sense of disconnect between the knowledge stored in those volumes and the information that actually filters out.
We live in a much different age, of course, with sex education an established fact of life as early as elementary school. And the amount of information available today about every subject in the world — including reproduction — is almost cacophonous in terms of quantity and digital access. But even in contemporary culture, the “spring awakening” of our teens continues to be a complicated and often fraught process. Which is a major reason why “Spring Awakening” in musical form — with its emphasis on such themes as the loss of virginity, teen pregnancy, abortion, suicide, child abuse and gay relationships — seems so vibrant and relevant, even with a storyline set more than 100 years ago.
As you’d come to expect from a Grijalva-directed Selma production, the cast includes some of our most talented local actors. Kindle Lynn Cowger stretches herself in poignant ways with a gorgeous and resonant portrayal of Wendla, the teen girl whose mother simply won’t tell her where babies come from. With a palpable quiver to her jaw at her most vulnerable moments, Cowger’s emotional journey on stage is riveting, and her vocals in such songs as “Mama Who Bore Me” and “Whispering” reach toward the transcendent.
Meg Clark, as Ilse, delivers another beautiful performance. The three other girl characters — Jana Price as Martha, Maria Monreal as Anna, and Nia Luchau as Thea — come together in an impressive, tight-knit ensemble.
Kai Di Mino, in the leading role of Melchior — the boy who wants to be romantically involved with Wendla — is strong in terms of acting. His vocals, however, were a disappointment at the Saturday evening performance I saw. I’m not sure if it was a case of vocal fatigue or simply being overwhelmed by the material, but Di Mino was barely able to get through the pivotal second-act song “Left Behind.”
Jared Serpa offers a distinctive interpretation of the anxiety-ridden Moritz. At first I was taken with his clenched, strained portrayal, but by the second act, it began to annoy. Grijalva should have directed him with a more subtle hand. Among the other boys, Aaron Pierce and Alex Figueroa are standouts. Ben Deghand and Alex Rozier both have strong moments acting and singing, respectively.
Veteran Selma choreographer Michael C. Flores does some of the finest work I’ve seen from him. I find it interesting that he and Grijalva seem to eschew the overly Teutonic rigidity of the original Broadway production — the idea that Germans feel most comfortable strutting in step — for something more lyrical. There’s a nod to exactness, including at one point a thinly veiled Nazi salute, but it doesn’t overwhelm. The inclusion of a featured dancer (a wonderful Justine Johnson) in many scenes adds even more to the metaphorical use of movement in the production. Still, Flores can have a tendency to over-choreograph; there are times that call for stillness. A scene between Deghand and Figueroa exploring feelings for each other, for example, includes extensive hand motions that distract rather than complement what should be a pivotal moment.
Juan Luis Guzmán, one of three “adult” cast members (joined by Camille Gaston and Emily Guyette in nicely played roles), doubles as costume designer, and he offers an intriguing vision: Rather than being dressed in rigid school uniforms, there’s a more free-form approach to the characters’ attire, with more contemporary feeling jackets worn by the boys, for example, replacing identical blazers. There is something of a risk to this because it dilutes the distinctive period feel of the piece; there are times, with the vaguely vintage sensibility of the girls’ dresses (combined with a lack of explicit German accents), that I got more of a Midwestern “Little House on the Prairie” vibe than European stuffiness.
One more gentle criticism in terms of the direction: Part of the emotional power of “Spring Awakening” is a jarring plot turn late in the show involving Wendla. The staging of this revelation felt too perfunctory and rushed to me. The audience needs an emotional beat or two both to absorb what happens and then process it.
Happily, the live band, under the baton of a deft Tim Fletcher, provided an expert accompaniment, and sound designer Mindy Ramos provided a nice balance between singers and musicians. While better articulation of the lyrics is needed in some of the ensemble numbers, I can say that the sound in “Spring Awakening” is much better than the national tour of “Kinky Boots” that just came through the Saroyan.
Even though I quibble above with a few details, it in no way diminishes my respect for the vitality and daring of this production. Which leads me to this:
You might wonder what I meant in my opening sentences of this review talking about a “Purple Summer” for Selma. It’s a reference to the final number of the show, the haunting (and gorgeous) “The Song of Purple Summer,” sung by the entire cast. For me, the song is about the transition from childhood to adulthood, that hazy and exciting (and melancholy and often traumatic!) time when possibilities seem limitless for a person. The song spills over with allusions to fecundity and maturation. When you’re going through this as a teen, the world and people around you somehow seem more vivid and your senses more heightened than you’d thought possible. It’s a special time, and it doesn’t last long.
How does this connect to the Selma Arts Center?
At the most elemental level, a theater company is a group of like-minded people: actors, directors, designers, crew members, donors, visionaries. Sometimes when the talent is there and the stars align, a company can bask in what you might call a “golden age.” I think it’s clear that’s going on in Selma right now. Like all special times, it might not last very long. Theater companies are also fragile. Change just a few of the people involved, and the whole chemistry can be affected. The best thing to do is not mourn the possibility that an era might end, but instead to embrace and celebrate it in the here and now. If you’ve never seen a Selma production, now’s your chance to experience part of that Golden Age. You, too, can know the wonder of Purple Summer.
“Spring Awakening,” through Feb. 10, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. Tickets are $19 adults, $17 students and seniors. Must be 18 or older to purchase a ticket. Under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
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