Selling out just 36 hours after reservations opened, Cardinal Theatre Productions’ presentation of the rock musical Spring Awakening had to meet some pretty big expectations. After all, the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won a Grammy for best musical show album.
The Cardinal Theatre Productions’ version of the show doesn’t disappoint.
Based on Frank Wedekind’s play Spring’s Awakening, the musical follows classmates Melchior, Moritz, Wendla and Ilse as they confront the challenges of adolescence and approaching adulthood in 19th-century Germany.
The musical is not for the squeamish or narrow-minded. The show is known for graphically confronting issues of sex, suicide, homosexuality, abuse and other societal taboos that young people confront on a daily basis. The explicit language and nudity have been known to drive away older audiences and shock those who don’t know what to expect from a musical with a seemingly innocuous title.
Fittingly, the Cardinal Theatre Productions version does shock, but in a good way.
Featuring an extremely talented and diverse cast and crew, the production proves that you don’t have to be an established pro to blow your audience away. Freshman Kevin Herald steals the show as the adorably awkward Moritz, whose attempts to advance in society are confounded by his struggles with the opposite sex and his inability to perform well in school.
Herald’s imperfect but raw, achy voice meshes well with the musical’s rock score, and his acting knowingly balances the poignant and the comical, demonstrating a deep connection with the character of Moritz.
Freshman Kyle McLaughlin plays Melchior Gabor, whose actions drive much of the play. A free-thinking intellectual struggling to survive in such a confined society, Melchior challenges the religious and political ideals of late-19th-century Germany and often finds himself punished for it.
McLaughlin’s versatile voice captures the essence of the conflicted character. He angrily joins in upbeat numbers like “Bitch of Living” and “Totally F-cked” but also slows down and enchants with “The Mirror-Blue Night” and “Left Behind.”
Sophomore Brenna Bloom’s Ilse is equally memorable. Bloom’s warm, bell-like alto has a way of ringing through the Massman and lingering in your ears long after the last note is finished. Her brilliant use of facial expressions make it easy to see why she was cast for such a dark character.
Freshman Jenna Bamberger as Wendla, the other female lead, dazzles with her heartfelt rendition of “Whispering,” and her acting in Wendla’s darker and more explicit scenes never falters. She demonstrates admirable maturity for such a young actress.
Several minor characters are just as brilliant. As the character of ”Adult Male,” junior Brandon Rachal internally switches between roles just as easily and efficiently as changing his tie, and freshman Nathan Fertig’s Georg is hilarious, believable and vocally haunting all at once.
But the talented crew all but upstages the actors.
Designer Manuel Prieto’s lighting, costume and set design are innovative even as they pay homage to the original production. Fans of the Broadway run will remember the shifting red and blue lights, old-fashioned, navy blue schoolboy uniforms and traditional Moritz hair swoop, but the show adds so much more.
The swaying hayloft of “I Believe” is replaced with a clever two-story stage upon which the orchestra also plays. Addtionally, the show ditches the girls’ prim, drab dresses and substitutes modern Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, which reveal a slight hint of sensuality and appropriately highlight the characters’ desires for the opposite sex.
The lighting stands out the most: Prieto makes sure to use it to change scenes, to illustrate mood and to suggest alternate realities. His best work is undoubtedly in “Don’t Do Sadness,” where red and blue lights trade sides of the stage as they follow their prospective characters. The lighting of Spring Awakening tells just as much of the story as the script.
Director Maddy Heyman and choreographers Kelly Ciurczak and Janelle Mamminni demonstrate their deep understanding of movement and placement on the stage. Though the original Broadway Spring Awakening becomes somewhat static at times, Heyman keeps her actors moving perfectly in “All That’s Known” and “The Word of Your Body.”
Ciurczak and Mamminni also rejuvenate “Totally F-cked” with in-your-face choreography and creatively focus the audience’s attention on the schoolboys and schoolgirls in “Touch Me.”
This production is nearly perfect. The talented orchestra keeps up with song changes and complements the casts’ voices with just enough violin, piano and guitar to keep the focus on the lyrics during large group numbers. Most importantly, the cast possesses the vibrant energy needed for such a swift-moving show. Spring Awakening at USC proves to be a prime example of independent theater at its finest.
Though all seven shows are at capacity, a waitlist will be posted outside of the Massman Theatre and rush seats will be available.