Tag Archives: theater

“Spring” fueled by vulnerability and emotion.

spring awakening

Top left, Adam Cerny and Anastasiya Newkirk as Melchior and Wendla. Top right: Aaron Lord as Moritz and Tina Hayz as Melchior’s Mother (and all other female adults). Bottom right: Cerny as Melchior

When I saw Spring Awakening for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that it was ‘R’ rated. I had seen on Wikipedia that some of the songs have adult language, and that it is about teenagers exploring the very adult themes of sexuality, suicide, abortion, faith, and doubt. I knew not to bring my daughter, but I had no idea what I was in for.

I had no idea that I would be treated to one of the most emotionally charged, passionate performances I have ever seen. That was 2014, when the Center for Living Arts presented Spring Awakening for the second time. I was so dumbfounded by the performance that for the first time in my life, I saw the same show again on the following weekend.

This time when I saw it, on Opening Night 2016, I had no excuse to be surprised. And yet shocked I was.

Shock is a dangerous word to use when describing art. There is a lot of art out there that is designed to simply shock. It has little value other than to cause disgust, hoping that it draws eyes in the same way that an auto accident draws gapers.

And while there are moments that can be described as shocking, that is never the point. Yes, lyrics like “totally f-ed” (which is sung with passionate, emotional, perfect articulation of a word that rhymes with ‘ducked’), and “it’s the bitch of living,” might give you a jolt. But the point is not to swear – it is to express a rage that rises under the weight of suppression and finally boils over in, dare I say, a climactic release.

Yes, watching a young man beg his Dad for another minute in the bathroom is a little uncomfortable. But the point is to show that the shame that the adults have attached to sexuality. It is to show that privacy is precious, and sometimes hard to come by.

Yes, watching the female cast explore their (totally clothed) bodies with their hands as they sing “Touch Me” made me feel a little like a dirty old man watching something I shouldn’t be watching. But the point is not to arouse. It is to reveal that there are things going on inside which they do not fully understand. Set up by the agonizing first scene of a girl’s mother unable to give even the most basic information about sex and reproduction to her daughter.

Yes, watching the main characters finally give in to their bodies in a passionate moment in the hay loft could be described as shocking. But the point is not voyeurism. A particular choice made by amazing Director Dino Hayz was made to show that these are two young people who care about each other and are doing something that feels natural and good. They are feeling something real for the first time in a culture that has told them over and over again that feeling anything is dangerous.

All of these moments, and more which I did not describe, are incredibly intimate. There are times in the cozy Center for Living Arts theater that some of the actors are literally inches away.

There’s not a moment that the actors can hide. They are there, exposed, even while fully clothed. They are so vulnerable that it brings you to the edge of discomfort. Some highlights:

Myka Waljasper, singing “The Dark I Know Well,” crushes me. Every time. She puts on the character of Martha like a well-worn coat. In both the 2014 and 2016 versions she sang the song beautifully. In 2014, I remember Martha more as brutalized and frightened. This year, she projects bold defiance to survive in the face of brutality.

Noel Huntley plays one of my favorite characters, Ilse. Her “Blue Wind,” comes right after a heartbreaking bit of nostalgia between her and Moritz. We all wish we could go back to their childhood. Back to a simpler time and play pirates. Ilse, who escaped one abusive home to find only an abusive community, sings of the blue wind of autumn, cold and sad. The misery of a lost childhood is clear in both her song and acting. In doing research for this review, I learned that she is 16 years old, and once again – almost a week after seeing the show, I’m shocked.

I imagine that someday I will see a production of Spring Awakening that does not include Aaron Lord as Moritz and Anastasiya Newkirk as Wendla. Frankly, it will be strange.

Lord’s Mortiz is the nervous, hyper-anxious friend of Melchior. The weight of expectations is too much for him. Lord, reprising his role from 2014, makes it feel as if all of Mortiz’s anxiety travels up through his eyes and oozes into his hair. He channels the pre-1995 punk intensity of Billie Joe Armstrong. I half-expected him to break into, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps. Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me,” from Green Day’s ‘Basket Case,’ which was an anthem of my own youth.

When Newkirk is on the stage, it is almost impossible to stop watching her. From her first scene, when she defiantly tells her mother, “You don’t think that I believe in the stork, do you?” to her last, she reveals the heart of the show. The changes she experiences are the emotional center of it all, and Newkirk carries it well.

Adam Cerny gives Melchior a bright-eyed optimism that I hadn’t seen before. In the story, he is the voice of truth. He questions authority, sticks up for his bullied friend, and sees the world for what it could be. Somehow Cerny is able to make this teenager who is wise beyond his years at the same time naïve and joyful. His emotional scenes with Wendla are believable, and his agony and turmoil in the second act is gut-wrenching.

In the end, all of these performances matter only because of the story. It is a story that needs to be told. It is a story that I, as a pastor and father, need to hear. It is a reminder that winds change, no matter how much we wish they wouldn’t. Faithful begin to question. Boys grow into men. Girls grow into women. Grief heals. Grace abounds. And yes, winter turns to spring.

So we must be ready. We must embrace the change, not with lies or easy answers. We must face the truth of pain and struggle if we are ever to live with hope. In the end, the cast sings of the Purple Summer, when the butterfly sings and opens its wings. The Purple Summer, when we can look out in wonder. The Purple Summer, when we can hold onto one another, and allow grace of new life to flow.

Good art makes you feel. Great art makes you change. The story of Spring Awakening is a reminder that I cannot hide pain of change from my girls. I cannot shy away from the tough questions of the youth I am charged with leading. I cannot be another weight of expectations and judgment upon kids who are already shackled.  I can decide to either be a part of the cold blue wind, or hold onto the hope of the warm purple summer. I choose grace. Purple has always been a favorite color.

Spring Awakening is playing on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19 at 7:00 p.m. at The Center For Living Arts, which is located at 2008 4th Avenue, Rock Island Il. Go to http://centerforlivingarts.org for more information. You can go to the Spring Awakening Quad Cities Facebook page, as well.

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I love it when a plan comes together

PART ONE of my story about GODSPELL
My wife and I during rehearsal.  In the show, this became one of the little bits of magic onto which I will forever hold.  Every time we rehearsed this, 'Jesus' cuts in and stops us from dancing.  And I was supposed to say, "Yeah, but she's so, so..."  Every time in rehearsal, I said something different to end that line.  Nothing I tried ever felt right.  Then during the show, I looked at her and our eyes met, and my heart melted again, and I finished my line perfectly "she's an angel."

My wife and I during rehearsal. In the show, this became one of the little bits of magic which I will forever cherish. Every time we rehearsed this, ‘Jesus’ cuts in and stops us from dancing. And I was supposed to say, “Yeah, but she’s so, so…” Every time in rehearsal, I said something different to end that line. Nothing I tried ever felt right. Then during the show, I looked at her and our eyes met, and my heart melted again, and I finished my line perfectly “she’s an angel.”

I messed up my line every time in rehearsal.  I only had two lines, and mine was the first line of the song.  There was no warm-up.  No lead-in.  No chance to find my way in the song.  No chance to start slow and pick up momentum.  It was just cue music, grab mic, and sing.  Sing.

I’ve held a mic on “stage” before hundreds of times.  I’ve given sermons, speeches, toasts, and prayers in front of large crowds and small gatherings.  I’ve even sung in front of people before, but always as a member of a choir.  I had not been nervous in a church in years.  Yet I knew my line was coming.  From the moment the previous song started I was already thinking about it. My turn to clutch that mic and sing was coming.

Every time in rehearsal I had messed it up.  I came in late.  Or I was way off key.  Or I botched the wording.  Up until the show I was ‘ofer.’  I should have been terrified.  It thought I was going to be terrified, but here’s the crazy thing, when it came time for my two-line solo, I wasn’t nervous.  I sang it.  “You are the light of the world,” I said as I pointed to one of the people in the audience.  And then the ensemble came in behind me  “You are the light of the world.”  I felt good, so I kept going.  I don’t know if I was off-key or not.  I knew at this point the only mistake I could make was to hold back.  “But if that light’s under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial,” I sang. And for a moment, if only in my mind, I was Donnie Osmond as Joseph or Michael Crawford as the Phantom.  I was hooked.

A few months ago I sat in a coffee shop and met with the Director of the Center for Living Arts, Dino Hayz.  The Center is one of those little gems you find in old cities.  It is not a big theater, but it has a lot of heart.  Focusing mostly on youth theater, the Center specializes in doing quality shows quickly.  Before there was a Center though, there was Dino and his wife and friends that put together a company to do Godspell in churches.  They have been doing Godspell in churches for over ten years.  They consider it their life’s ministry to spread the message of love and community that is a part of Godspell to as many people as possible.  “It’s not so much a musical,” he explained to me, as it is an experience.  “I want people to experience Christ’s love through what is happening all around them.”

We sat together and talked about an idea.  It was an idea hatched by our children’s minister months (years?) before.  What if we did Godspell together at our church?  What could we create if we took a few of the experienced members of Dino’s company, and did Godspell with the talented and willing people from our church?  What if, instead of them doing Godspell at our church, we did it together with our church?

I left that lunch knowing that we were embarking on something good.  I had no idea just how magnificent it would become.

On the day of our placement auditions, I wondered who would come.  On the first night it was clear that we had created something special.  20 people came.  There were two kindergartners, a handful of junior high and senior high youth.  There were a couple of adults who had never been in a show before.  There were a few remarkably talented singers.  There was a senior member of our church choir, and regular singer from our praise band.  We ranged in age from 5-65(ish).  We were men and women, boys and girls.  Some brought members of their family in the journey with them, others came with friends.  Some came eagerly.  Some came only because they were dragged, almost literally, from other tasks.  We were scared, excited, and willing.

We supported each other.  As each person took turns singing a few lines a capella from a song of their choice  we cheered.  At least one youth simply had someone standing next to her for support, so she wouldn’t have to stand alone.  The truth was, none of us were alone.  On the very first night we were creating the community that Godspell is about.  From moment one, we were living the musical.  On that night, each one of us put a pebble in our shoe and called it “dare.”

They say live theater gets in your blood.  People talk about it in the same way they talk about addiction.  Intellectually, I accepted that it must be true, but until the word “crucial” left my lips, I had never experienced anything like it.  

Being a part of this production Godspell changed me.  I’m not even sure how exactly yet.  I know I want to be a in another musical.  I know that I want to have that 10-minutes-to-showtime excitement again.  I know that I want to have that it’s-almost-my-line sense of calm confidence again.   I want to look out into an audience and see their smiles, read their expressions, bask in their gripped silence.  I want to look into the eyes of a cast member in the midst of another show and whisper, “we’re really doing it,” with the same mix of fun and terror that I had last Saturday.  I want to put my arms around a group of friends after a show well done.  I want to crash into bed, emotionally spent, and dream about the songs I just sang.

When I think about the journey that started with a lunch in a coffee shop in October, and ended on a spring afternoon… Well, I have to stop myself.

This journey is going to keep going.  There are going to be more shows.   There are going to be more rehearsals.  There are going to be more chances to sing about love.  Nothing ended that night.  It turns out that something was sparked.  Relationships have been forged.  Dreams have been shared.  A vision has been caught.  There’s more to come.  The show will go on.

And if you’re looking for a ensemble to “do” Godspell in your church, I know just the group.

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I know what I like

There are a lot of different kinds of snobs.  There are clothes snobs that scoff at anything bought at TJ Max.  There are wine snobs that look down on anyone that drinks White Zinfandel.  There are jazz snobs, coffee snobs, classical music snobs, movie snobs, and beer snobs.  There are also people that just know what they like.

I don’t know much about coffee, but if I have a cup I can tell you if I like it or not.  I couldn’t tell you how it was brewed, whether or not it was freshly ground, or what country it came from.  I feel the same way about theater.  I’m no theater expert, but I know what I like.

Tonight I went to see “Singing in the Rain.”  It was produced by the Vermillion Players.  It was a cast of mostly high school students from in and around Pontiac.  I don’t know what a theater critic would have to say, but I thought that it was excellent.  It was the best $16 my family has spent on entertainment in a long time.   I don’t know what directors do, and I don’t know how to differentiate between good and bad directing.  I know that I enjoyed this show, so as far as I’m concerned, Director Tom Ramseyer did a great job.

I laughed out loud several times, and even let out a couple of “whoops,” during the great dance numbers.  My two year old daughter was captivated.  Every time the lead female, Carrie Chandler, left the stage, she wondered “Where’d Kathy go?”  Afterwards, we were able to see her off stage, and my daughter started to cry when we had to leave.

The two male leads, John Ramseyer (Don Lockwood) and Donnie Sartoris (Cosmo Brown) were great.  They were both excellent singers, but what set them apart from any other comparable production was their acting and dancing.  They had several dance numbers that were full of energy and some acrobatic moves.  When I found out that neither of them had any tap dancing experience before they started the show, I was shocked.

Their acting scenes were great too.  The two played best friends, and their chemistry was great.  Most actors in musical theater that I have seen were not cast because of their acting abilities.  Most acting in musicals is over-the-top and a little schmaltzy.  John and Donnie interacted with authenticity and sincerity, and Donnie is a natural in physical comedy.

Some of the other actors with lesser parts were also impressive.  Dylan Webster sang only, “Beautiful Girls,” but was probably the best singer in the cast.  Sam Alsdorf was a great comic foil to “Don,” and “Cosmo,” in the “Moses Supposes” number.  Jason Williams was a featured dancer, and I wish they had featured him more because he is very talented.    Kallie Setterlund, who played Lena Lamont, had a great performance.  Her falsetto voice and facial expressions were spot on.  She had the most outrageous character, and she nailed it.

The pit did a great job too.  The music was first-rate.  And this is why community theater is so cool – I bumped into a friend, Lon Alderman, who was playing lead trumpet.  He is a fellow United Methodist pastor, and has a very nice blog that I read called “The Daily Build Up.”

Overall, it was a wonderfully entertaining evening.  On an evening that Iwas worn out, and could have easily decided to stay home, I am glad we chose to go and see the Vermillion Players.  It was well worth it.


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