Founded last year by Keith Rabin as a part of Lucent Performing Arts, Ignite Theatre is signaling great seriousness of intention, lining up an ambitious production schedule for the coming year that includes Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the Pulitzer winner about mental illness, Next to Normal. The group also scored a coup in gaining the rights to Spring Awakening, a huge Broadway hit based on Frank Wedekind's once intensely controversial nineteenth-century play, and is now presenting its regional premiere.
The musical sticks pretty closely to Wedekind's plot, and makes no attempt to update theme or locale. This is wise, because though sexual repression and puritanism are still very much with us, the stifling bourgeois variety here was very specific to Wedekind's Germany, a highly structured and conventional culture; the youth rebellion that threatened to upend it was fueled by the ideals of freedom fostered by German Romanticism. What does get updated is the way that the young protagonists in the musical react to adult control: They grab large mikes and belt out the terrific score like contenders on American Idol — lyrical ballads and loud, angry, stomping rock-and-roll numbers. Some audience members are seated along the sides of the stage, and actors in regular clothes sometimes leap up unexpectedly from among them to join in a chorus. It all makes for fluid movement between Wedekind's milieu, with its smothering school uniforms and heavy stockings, and our own time.
Sexual frustration is clearly linked to violence and even death in this world. You can see the danger early in the young girls' fierce, jittery rendition of "Mama Who Bore Me," and the boys' "The Bitch of Living." So violence is never far away for innocent, inquisitive, fourteen-year-old Wendla, slightly more sexually informed (at least on paper) Melchior, or distressed and confused Moritz, who fights urges he cannot understand and whose failures in the classroom place his entire future and identity in jeopardy. Teachers carry large canes they do not hesitate to use. Martha, one of Wendla's friends, is abused both physically and sexually at home, and it's for the same reason that another teenager, Ilse, has already left her family to live in a Bohemian enclave — where she's discovered a life every bit as exploitative as the one she fled. It's therefore not surprising that the trigger for Wendla and Melchior's loving and consensual sexual relationship would be her fascination with Martha's beatings.
Presented by Ignite Theatre through August 26, Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 720-362-2697, www.ignitetheatre.com.
Ignite's rendition of this raging, hormonal wind-blast of a play is both exciting and problematic. The company's passion and dedication, the hours of work and planning, are all evident in the vitality of the production and the sheer gutsiness with which the actors attack their roles. Brooke Singer, who plays Wendla, has a lovely voice and a charming, innocent presence. Her Melchior, Jack Thomas, is a handsome, appealing guy who also sings well. And Chris Russell projects all kinds of passionate energy as Moritz.
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But there are weaker performances too, and directorial missteps. Ignite doesn't have a big tech budget, but both set and costume design could be more expressive and meticulous, and though the movement is workmanlike, it won't for a moment erase memories of Bill T. Jones's sharply propulsive choreography for the Broadway production. The images projected on three screens in the back are sometimes corny and often distracting.
Then there are issues of interpretation. All of the characters frequently run their hands yearningly and suggestively along their bodies, but the gesture gets overused and often seems more mechanical than heartfelt. Two actors play all the adult roles, underlining the theme of youth in rebellion against a monolithic adult world. Andy Anderson and Suzanne Nepi are fine in some of these parts, but both of them caricature the teacher-headmaster scenes terribly — a large mistake, since the plots hatched during these scenes have genuinely horrible repercussions. I can't help feeling that a surer directorial hand than Amy Osatinski's was needed to guide this cast.
Ignite has arrived with a shout. Now it's time to refine the work.