Adolescent lust and angst took center stage at the Downtown Arts Center on Friday as Kentucky Conservatory Theatre opened its last production of 2012, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Spring Awakening. Written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, this show, which continues through Dec. 9, explores the universal challenges confronting teenagers through a melodramatic story set in provincial Germany in 1891, but outfitted with a contemporary folk-rock score.
The presentational staging by director Wesley Nelson and edgy choreography by Jenny Fitzpatrick bring out the timelessness of the characters conundrums and the modernity of their attitudes. The elegiac quality of this melancholy musical, in which two of the three main characters die in despairing shame, is further enhanced by the stark set and lighting designs by Robert Pickering and Danny Bowling and the simple yet detailed costumes by Kerri Peterson.
The unified production vision by this artistic team is very effective, but it is undermined by Gareth Evans rough sound design. On opening night, the audience was subjected to microphone level adjustments throughout the evening, and the loud bangs and booms in the actors most intimate scenes of love-making were an unpleasant distraction. Why is sound always the least developed production element in musicals throughout this region?
As the protagonist Melchior, a promising student from a good family, Josh Stone delivers a performance of resonant emotional truth, disciplined in playing each moment of the storys development on its own merits, thereby taking the audience on his journey with him. The moment when he breaks down in a paroxysm of grief is electrifying precisely because he has spelled out for us every thought and feeling that brought him there. Unfortunately, Stones acting talents are far superior to his singing skills. It is a tribute to his dramatic gifts that his out-of-tune, colorless vocalism does not substantially weaken his effectiveness as the character Melchior.
As his tragically sheltered girlfriend, Wendla, Rebecca Keith brings an appealing earnestness and a lovely singing voice. Her performance, too, is heartbreaking. Even more captivating is Sullivan James as Melchiors wilder, conflicted best friend, Moritz. James invests this angry character with a disarmingly gamine quality and infectiously enthusiastic singing, making his eventual demise all the more disturbing.
Among the other girls, two standouts are Alys Dickerson, a natural, unaffected actress as child-abuse victim Martha, and Meaghan Sharrard, who brings a sweet voice and strong acting chops to the role of Ilse, the outcast who tries to save Moritz.
Of the boys, Matt Elmore (Hanschen) has the best singing voice in the cast and shares a beautifully unforced homoerotic scene with William James Bradley (Ernst). Skyler Slone plays Georg, who lusts for his piano teacher, with vibrant comic energy.
All the adults in the story are played by Robbie Morgan and Chris Rose with a chilling blend of antipathy and apathy. Their understatement allows the focus to fall squarely on the teenagers, who do indeed carry the show with intense emotion.
The production is accompanied by a small band under the leadership of Chris McDowell and is music directed by Nelson, the stage director. Although the music comes off well enough, the breathy, unsupported singing is not nearly as good as it could be, resulting in a lot of lost, unclear diction. I urge all of these talented young actors to invest in some voice and music training. Being able to carry a tune does not automatically equip you to carry a role in a musical. You actually need to sound really good, too.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.