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SPRING AWAKENING (MusicalFare at Shea’s 710) blooms on big stage

THE BASICS: SPRING AWAKENING, the 2007 multiple Tony award winning soft-rock musical by Sater & Sheik, presented by MusicalFare Theatre, directed by Randy Kramer, opened on March 8 and has a short run through March 18, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 at Shea’s 710 Theatre, 710 Main Street in Buffalo (the former Studio Arena) (847-0850). Adult themes, language, and graphic sex scenes. Full service bar in a recently renovated lounge, coffee, snacks. Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This is the 1891 German play SPRING AWAKENING: A CHILDREN’S TRAGEDY set to music. We follow five teenagers (and their six friends) in the throes of erotic fantasies as they grow up in repressed end of the 19th century Germany. Each discovers sexual freedom in various ways, often suffering for it at the hands of adults. Presenting, on stage, atheism, religious oppression, suicide, gender inequality, masturbation, homosexuality, sado-masochism, wet dreams, sex fantasies, free love, rape, and abortion, the play was a real shocker at the time and was a precursor of the famous (some would say “decadent”) Weimar Republic represented in our time by the musical CABARET. The play was written several years before Freud published, but it’s rife with “Freudian” topics. In this time of YouTube videos, internet porn, and gritty dramas on HBO and Netflix, you’d think audiences would be numb, but apparently not.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It has been a “spring awakening” of extremely high-level theater in Buffalo this March and at last we get a local production that fits the relatively large 710 stage. This production is running on all eight cylinders, using MusicalFare’s in-house crew of Costumes and Make-up by Kari Drozd and Susan Drozd, superb lighting and sound by Chris Cavanagh, a set with very creepy overtones by the wonderful Chris Schenk, high energy choreography that even spills out into the aisles by Doug Weyand, and graphically clear direction by Randall Kramer.

I’m saving kudos for music direction by Allan Paglia at the piano so that I can gush for a moment about the musicians. The intonation, balance, timing, and lush sound of Sonsoles Llodra (violin), Gail Bauser (cello) and Matt Hasselback (double bass) meshed smoothly with Larry Albert (guitar) and Brian McMahon (drums) and was appreciated.

A bit more on the set. It’s a mechanical, utilitarian, three level affair (the musicians are on the second level) complete with an ornamental iron work sign that reads, I believe: “Heilt die schadling nicht mit rosen” which translates roughly as “You can’t heal the damage with roses.” But it’s the look of it that reminds you of the most famous iron work sign in the world “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes us free”) over the entrance to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The shape of the sign over the set is a chilling reminder that oppression has tragic consequences.

All the adult roles (parents, teachers, various professionals) are played with gusto (and quick costume changes) by Jacob Albarella and Lisa Vitrano. They were obviously having a lot of fun with this. Good for them. The five younger lead roles are well played and sung by Leah Berst reprising her role as Wendla Bergmann from three seasons ago at UB, Nick Stevens, Patrick Cameron, Arianne Davidow, and Adam Kluge. The supporting cast have all been leads in other recent productions and includes Brittany Noel Bassett, Arin Lee Dandes, Lucas DeNies, Dan Urtz, Preston D. Williams, and Emily Yancey.

I love all these people mentioned, cast and crew. Let me be clear: MusicalFare brought their “A” game. And in 2007 SPRING AWAKENING won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score (and many, many more Tony awards specific to the Broadway production) as well as the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. And, certainly the all-hands-on-deck anthem “Totally Fucked” was totally delightful.

I just didn’t like SPRING AWAKENING. But, that’s just my opinion. Your results may vary.

UP NEXT: The musical ONCE, April 25 through May 27, back on the MusicalFare Mainstage in Amherst.

Lead image: Photo by Jesse Sloier

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at answers. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" In every situation he's in Peter wonders: "What's the big picture here?" And, "if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?"

That's why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM "Theater Talk" repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the afternoon drive host as well as producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED). For the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he moderates on-stage pre-concert chats with the artists and is on-stage host of the Falletta (classical guitar) Competition.

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the "Artie Awards Committee."

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