When Frank Wedekind wrote "Spring's Awakening" in 1891, he wasn't expecting it not to be produced until 1906 and to cause a scandal when it was performed, for it to be accused of being pornographic in New York, or banned in Boston and London. (He did a bit better with his "Lulu" plays that form the basis of Alban Berg's opera.) When Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik adapted it as a rock musical a century later as multiple-Tony-winner SPRING AWAKENING, one wonders if they realized that reaction in some circles still wouldn't be much different. You'd think that by now, people would have realized that in every century, in every country, adolescents will have hot and cold running hormones and will discover sex whether adults tell them about it or not.
At Ephrata Performing Arts Center, artistic director Edward Fernandez has decided to bring the story of Victorian-era German adolescents to Pennsylvania Dutch country, an area that in some corners seems not necessarily much more enlightened than provincial Germany at the time of Wedekind's writing.
EPAC's production brings with it two real achievements – a great setting, manifested through particularly creative use of lights (kudos to set designer Mike Rhoads and lighting designer Jeff Cusano) and a particularly fine orchestra, directed by J.P. Meyer, that particularly stood out on two of the numbers. For community theatre this orchestra is exceptional, and it would be a fine one for a professional production of the same show.
This production also brings with it a lead cast of Josh Kirwin (Melchior Gabor), Kate-Lynn Scheib (Wendla Bergmann) and Vince Fazzolari (Moritz Stiefel) who are not only stage veterans already but who have previous experience with the play. Kirwin, particularly, is impressive, and he owns the stage from his first moment speaking. He's also a fine singer, no surprise as he's also a back-up vocalist in a local band; the stage experience shows. Fazzolari is a fine performer as well, although all the younger male performers are somewhat overshadowed by Kirwin; he particularly shines, finally, in the second act when he cuts loose on "Don't Do Sadness". Scheib clearly knows the show well and makes a lovely Wendla, a girl doomed by the innocence her mother, Frau Bergmann, is anxious not to disturb.
Supporting cast are also well-chosen, and are a particularly talented lot for a large group of younger performers. Fernandez was anxious that his cast really be made of younger performers, as he finds the tendency to engage older performers to play adolescent parts on stage, especially in a show such as this, to produce unconvincing results. In that, he has succeeded admirably, especially with Amy Ward, singing Ilse, a newcomer to EPAC, and with high school senior Madison Buck, an young EPAC veteran. Both have astonishing voices, and Ward has astonishing stage presence for a fairly new performer.
Buck's portrayal of the abused Martha is convincing, and her performance of "The Dark I Know Well", is remarkable. Ward simply inhabits the role of Ilse, an 1890's flower child, floating in and out of the other characters' lives, an underaged Bohemian artists' model and freethinker. The innocence she manages to convey in the part makes the story she recounts of her life particularly chilling – she is the adolescent caught in a dangerous place who finds the possibilities of injury and death more exhilarating than cautionary, who has not yet learned her lesson from drinking herself into a stupor and sleeping all night in the snow, but who considers it an adventure. She is the counterbalance to Martha, who knows she is trapped in a hell from which she sees no immediate way out. Her "The Song of Purple Summer," the closing number, truly makes sense for the show.
Susan Barber and Larry Gessler play the adult woman and adult man, whose roles change with the immediate needs of the scenes. Barber, a long-time EPAC performer, plays a convincing and sympathetic Mrs. Gabor, Melchior's deeply caring mother, but admits that her favorite role in the show is that of the disciplinarian schoolmistress, with a cane in hand and an urge to fail students in her mind. Gessler, also an experienced area actor, makes a terrifying Latin master and a frightening Mr. Gabor, easily prepared to dispose of his son to a reformatory, but prefers the role of Hanschen's father, perhaps the only adult male in the show with no misplaced motivations.