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REVIEW: Bad Education on Trial in Spring Awakening (Chameleon Theatre Circle)

Schoolboys in Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

It’s surprising how well Spring Awakening has aged. For a show based on an 1891 stage drama by Frank Widekind, the musical’s indictment of harmful education systems and nonexistent sex ed play very well in today’s America. Willful ignorance may not entirely win out, but it certainly leaves a lot of damage in its wake in the current production by Chameleon Theatre Circle.

Chameleon’s show takes place at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, a superior acoustic space to the old Ames Center blackbox where the company previously was in residence. Some of the production virtues include intimate proximity, the cast members playing instruments, and some standout performances in the ensemble. Some of its distracting elements include overamplification and a lighting design that doesn’t seem to have accounted for pit lights, many of which illuminated the stage clearly during blackouts.

Grant Ruckheim and Cris Sanchez Carrera as the lovers Hanschen and Ernst – ironically one of the few couples to survive the tragic events of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

The events of Spring Awakening are set in an indeterminate corner of Germany where perhaps high school-aged schoolboys practice rote memorization and recitation. Capricious teachers and poorly engaged parents railroad the young men and women into scenarios where suicide, unplanned pregnancy, and worse arise to a killer rock musical score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

Chameleon’s production is directed by Jay Gilman (of the Minnesota Fringe Festival) and choreographed by Jackie O’Neill, with music direction by Dale Miller. It’s quite loud in volume terms; given the actors’ proximity to the audience, it probably would have faired better as an unamplified acoustic show. Many of the subtleties you’d expect to enjoy in Gremlin’s space get covered up in a cloud of amplified noise. Still, there’s something powerful about the mix of brutal and touching intimacies, especially in scenes like the intoxicating exchange between Hanschen (Grant Ruckheim) and Ernst (Cris Sanchez Carerra). Distinguished performances include Benjamin Rubenstein as Melchior, Lydia Wagner as Wendla, and Suzie Juul as Ilse. (One of Wendla’s scenes has Wagner accompanying herself on the piano, to excellent effect.)

Lydia Wagner as Wendla in Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey Photography LLC.

Spring Awakening enjoys a strong cult following and Chameleon Theatre Circle’s production shows some of the reasons why. Those stand lights shining onto the stage and into the audience have got to go, though.

Spring Awakening plays through June 30 at Gremlin Theatre in Saint Paul, MN.

Amy Donahue

Amy Donahue is a staff reviewer at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. She interned with the magazine during the summer of 2017, served as a guest contributor while studying abroad in Europe that fall, and has moved up to regular old reviewing. She admits to being at least 50% terrified of contemporary German opera.
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