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CCT’s Exuberant Spring Awakening

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford CCT’s Exuberant Spring AwakeningJessica Greenwald as Wendla and Oliver Runyon as Melchior in the Columbus Children's Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” Photo: Ellen O’Neill.
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Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Advanced Performance Academy Young Adult Ensemble have turned their Park Street theater over to work of bent toward decidedly mature audiences. Broadway smash Spring Awakening by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) based on the 19th-century play by Frank Wedekind gets a charged take from director Greg Hellems.

Spring Awakening follows a group of friends in Germany. The kids run from childhood terrors and oppression they can’t understand the systems of and straight into the sharpened, poison-dipped knives of adulthood. The play instantly struck a chord with its infectious score and its universal themes of sexual awakening, self-determination, violence, and the simultaneous pull to belong and strain against society. It’s irresistible to teens because it doesn’t talk down to them.

Center, Oliver Runyon as Melchior, and the cast of the Columbus Children’s Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” Photo by Ellen O’Neill.

This production can’t be criticized the same way I would something else with these professional production values. An ensemble of children 13-18 runs into issues of inconsistency that are nobody’s fault. The voice is part of the body and bodies here are still growing. As a result, there are issues with range and control that would be a deal-breaker in a professional or even college production that it’s impossible to determine what’s in the singing and what are just muscles still in flux.

What this production gains, and what director Hellems deploys like a marauding general, is energy. Every moment on stage shimmers and vibrates with an electricity. This also provides an invigorating chance to see unmediated takes on these characters. Casting (roughly) the same age as the people they’re playing gives everything a freshness. The actors don’t have a decade of reflection on how they felt and processed things like the first time they had sex or finding out kids they know (or themselves) were subject to horrific abuse. The rawness of those feelings, through the lens of characters who slip between cipher and fully formed person, is as pure an example of what’s good about theatre as I’ve ever seen.

Comments about inconsistency aside, some of the performances are very strong. Jessica Greenwald’s Wendla, who carries most of the show as our point of view character, tears into some of the best songs in the musical canon with power and abandon and her vocal chemistry with Oliver Runyon’s Melchior is remarkable. Shannon Lane’s Martha and Donya Rahimi’s Ilse are heartbreaking and their duet on “The Dark I Know” is bone-chilling. Benjamin Smallwood’s Moritz is a riveting burst of wild-card danger. Emma Lou Andrews as all of the adult women in the show is a marvel of control and making every tiny gesture count.

Michael Brewer’s set does a good job of setting the scene, along with TonyaMarie’s costumes, as both out of time and connected to Germanic traditions. Jonathan Collura’s music direction is strong but a little too tasteful. His throbbing piano gets the mix of folk and rock in the score but I wanted more crunch on the drums and distortion on the guitar and strings.

L to R, Emma Lou Andrews as the Adult Women, Oliver Runyon as Melchior, and Nathaniel Thomas as the Adult Men in the Columbus Children’s Theatre production of “Spring Awakening”. Photo by Ellen O’Neill.

If you’re looking for a gateway drug to theatre for a teen in your life, I can’t imagine a better production. Its imperfections scale down this kind of work to something human-sized, something done by people. And its joys are evident, immediate, and powerful.

Spring Awakening runs through August 13 with performances at 7:30 pm Wednesday through Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit columbuschildrenstheatre.org

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