And you thought your adolescence was difficult!
The teenaged characters of “Spring Awakening,” the Tony-winning musical that is being presented in a “College Production” at the Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes through Oct. 13, are facing a grueling, unforgiving obstacle course on the way to their 20s. Storylines revolve around a suicide, an unintended pregnancy, a dangerous underground abortion and an unwarranted reform school sentence, and adult characters include cruel teachers and parents who are misguided at best and abusive at worst. Thank goodness the final two numbers, “Those You’ve Known” and “The Song of Purple Summer,” put a hopeful, inspirational spin on what has come before.
With music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater — drawing from the controversial 19th century play by Frank Wedekind — “Spring Awakening” is set in Wedekind’s time. The students are commanded to recite Latin ad infinitum in their classes, and the main female character, Wendla (played here by Rachel Levy), is frustrated that her mother gives evasive answers to her questions about sex, but doesn’t have any other way to get that information.
Yet in many ways these characters seem very modern, routinely swearing, questioning authority, unashamedly embracing homosexuality (in one couple’s case) and just, in general, yearning to transcend the drab world they were born into.
The fact that this cast — directed and choreographed by Lauren Moran Mills — is made up of actors who are more or less the same age of their characters helps give this production a boisterousness, and an infectious vitality. (An onstage five-piece band ably backs the 13-member cast, with pianist Kevin Lynch serving as conductor and musical director.)
It helped, too, that Levy and Thomas Fetner (playing the main male character, Melchior) have strong voices and are able to convey a sense of wholesome goodness even when their characters are indulging in questionable, reckless behavior. You never forgot that they are still, in a sense, just kids.
Less successful, I thought, was Mitchell Folan’s portrayal of the play’s third most important character, failure-prone Moritz. He went so over-the-top in oozing insecurity and nervousness that the character became a caricature; a little more subtlety would have helped.
Jake Aboyoun played all eight adult male characters, by the way; Corrie Down all five adult women. I found it impossible to keep them all straight, though maybe, to some degree, this was by design, as all the adults characters are intended as representatives of the same thing: A world that punches the teenagers in the face and stomps on their dreams, every chance it gets.
The cast, by the way, has totally changed in the production’s second and final week. In other words, there was one cast Aug. 2-6, and another Aug. 9-13. So if you go this weekend, you’ll see different actors than I did.
The final three performances of “Spring Awakening” at the Rhino Theatre in Pompton Lakes take place Aug. 11-12 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 13 at 3 p.m.; visit rhinotheatre.com.