Disheartening, shattering, sometimes agonizing to watch, provocative as hell – Xavier University’s “Spring Awakening” is all that and more. What’s most wonderful about it is the youthfulness of the cast.
More often than not, you’ll see this show with a cast of actors who are edging their way toward 30. That's not middle-aged, by any means. But remember, this is a show that is about teen-agers. Wendla, the leading female character, is supposed to be 14.
This cast is all older than that, of course. But they are young enough for their exuberance to be convincing. These are characters who are as filled with optimism and wonder for the world as they are with darkness and a sense of hopelessness. They're not certifiable, though. They’re just young. They haven’t learned how to navigate the complexities of the world yet.
In his curtain speech, it was obvious that director Stephen Skiles – also head of Xavier’s young theater program – is thrilled with his production. And rightly so, beginning with his casting of the three major roles; Maya Farhat as Wendla, Tyler Kuhlman as Melchior and Griff Bludworth as Moritz.
Farhat is the epitome of modesty and youthful passion, singing with extraordinary restraint and control rather than trying to overpower us with vocal pyrotechnics. It’s so, so much more compelling. Wendla is supremely naïve. But Farhat doesn’t play down to her character. There’s no question that we’re watching a twentysomething woman in the role. But Farhat does it with such reticence and humility that we never, ever doubt her.
Maya Farhat and Tyler Kuhlman.
Kuhlman, though a notch less effective as a singer, gives Melchior that wonderful mix of idealism and self-righteous that makes us adore him even as we occasionally smirk at his innocence. You love and admire how much he wants to change the world, even as you know he’s unlikely to achieve many of those dreams of his. If this character teeters too much in one direction or the other, Melchior can be insufferable. Kuhlman maintains the balance perfectly.
And Bludworth’s Moritz? You just want to reach out and hug the kid. There’s not a bad bone in Moritz. In fact, he’s quite sweet. But he's lost. He’s spent a lifetime being humiliated, first by his parents, then by his teachers and classmates. Small wonder that Moritz has come to believe them. Bludworth shows us how powerful those years of little murders can be.
There are other performances I found myself drawn to, as well; Ryan O’Toole’s Georg, who verges on a 19th century punk rocker and Molly Hiltz, convincingly playing every one of the characters demanded of the “adult female” role. There’s Megan Hostetler’s Ilse, too, whose vain attempt to save Moritz is crushing to watch. And Aaron Krick and Elizabeth Rancourt, who were alternatingly uplifting and tragic.
Griff Bludworth as Moritz.
There are a few bumps along the way. The balance of music and singing is sometimes off, though on the whole, you can hear these singers quite well. And there are a couple of roles that would be served well by more skillful actors.
But this is a handsome and affecting show, from Kathleen Hotmer’s simple period costumes to Alana Yurczyk’s spare set with just enough of a hint of the power of the past. And Dee Anne Bryll’s choreography is particularly successful. There’s lots and lots of movement in this show. But Bryll tightly reins it in so that it becomes a theatrical element, not a showstopper. Alice Trent’s lighting is quite effective, too, though it has a distracting way of spilling out onto the theater walls.
What is most impressive, though, is that Xavier did this at all. This is a show that unabashedly takes on the oppressiveness of 19th Century religion. Characters challenge parental and academic authority. They challenge God. The play charges headfirst into controversial and complicated issues and refuses to back away from them. And the result is a gripping piece of theater. And – sorry for stereotyping – it’s not what you expect to see on the stage at a Catholic university.
Good for Stephen Skiles for selecting it. And good for the Xavier University for supporting him, the staff and the students in that decision. It speaks well of XU and of the department itself. I'm looking forward to see more from them as this department grows.
You've got two more changes to see this show: 7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, April 18 19.
Tickets are $17, $12 for students and are available by calling 513-745-3939 or online at www.xavier.edu/theatre.