News Column

Rock musical of sexual awakening to open at Civic

October 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 10--A groundbreaking musical that pairs a 19th-century German play with contemporary rock music makes its Lehigh Valley premiere Friday when it opens Civic Theatre's 2013/2014 season.

"Spring Awakening," based on Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1891 play about German youths struggling with their burgeoning sexuality, swept the 2007 Tony Awards, winning eight out of its 11 nominations, including best musical, director and book. The original cast recording of "Spring Awakening" also won a 2008 Grammy award.

Director William Sanders says he has tried for four years to get rights for the show, which he saw multiple times in New York City. He says the original was a popular play when he was a student.

"I really admire this show," he says. "It's very accessible to young actors."

The story follows a group of teens in late 19th-century Germany who are confused by their adolescent yearnings in a society where parents offer little, if any, information about sexuality. In the opening scene, a mother tells her daughter she will one day have a baby just by loving her husband.

"Spring Awakening" features a score by singer-songwriter turned Broadway composer Duncan Sheik. Sheik is working on the movie version of "Spring Awakening," set to begin filming this year.

"Sheik was not a theater composer and was heavily influenced by rock," Sanders says. "The score is very dense, harmonically. In many songs, five characters are singing five-part harmony. It's very taxing vocally and requires wide vocal ranges which made it difficult to cast."

The show also deals with difficult topics such as child abuse, abortion, masturbation and sexual exploration.

Sanders says one of his biggest concerns was finding a cast who could sing it and were young enough to believably play characters who are still in school.

"On Broadway, some of the actors were almost 30 and that really stuck in my head because this is specifically about adolescence and discovering sexual feelings," he says. "I knew we have a lot of talented young people."

The cast of 13 features 11 students and two adults. The youngest character, Thea, is played by 16-year-old Aria Sivick. Main characters Melchior is played by Muhlenberg student Michael Barthes and Wanda is played by Easton High School junior Nina Attinello. Sanders says there are five other Muhlenberg students in the cast and Civic has developed a "cooperative relationship" with the college.

"It was tricky because the show has very graphic language and situations although none of it is gratuitous," he says. "I made sure their parents knew what the show is about."

Another aspect that makes "Spring Awakening" different is its structure.

"This isn't a traditional musical," Sanders says. "The songs don't advance the plot. It's more like a play with music. All the songs are inner monologues so it's like a rock and roll show even more than 'Rent' is."

Sanders says the play is staged to delineate the songs from the framework of the play.

"The scenes are integral but in a way divorced from the songs," he says. "We had to meld the songs into the scenes to make it clear we were now inside someone's head."

He says although the action is from a certain period of time, he creates an awareness that the young people are also in the present.

To achieve that, Sander says Will Morris created lighting in a modern rock-style. Jason Sherwood's set made with rough-hewn lumber for the period scenes also transform with "some surprises," he says.

A seven-piece band plays the full orchestration.

"I'm excited to see it all come together," Sanders says. "It's all about inner feelings aching to come out."

"Spring Awakening" contains mature themes, sexual situations and strong language and is not suitable for all audiences. Parental discretion is advised.

-- "Spring Awakening," 7 p.m. Oct. 11, 17, 18, 24 and 25; 8 p.m. Oct. 12, 19 and 26 and 2 p.m. Oct. 27, Civic Theatre, 527 N 19th St., Allentown. Tickets: $22; $20, students and seniors this weekend only. Then tickets are: $25; $20, student and seniors on Thursdays, and $31: $28, students and seniors on other days. Civic also is offering last minute student rush tickets at the door for $15. http://www.CivicTheatre.com, 610-432-8943.

Double dose of Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, a writer and poet whose name is synonymous with horror, will get different treatments from two theater companies this month, the month of his death.

Allentown Public Theatre will present "Poe: A Madman Knows Nothing" opening Friday at the Ice House in Bethlehem. In this original one-man show, Artistic Director Joshua Neth explores Poe's life through his stories, poems and personal letters.

Opening Oct. 18, a new troupe called Global Impactors Group will present "Spirit of Poe: 13 Haunting Stories," theatrical adaptations of seven stories and six poems by Poe, at the Macungie Institute.

In "Poe: A Madman Knows Nothing," Neth portrays the man whose life had as much mystery as some of his stories. Neth will tell some of Poe's most popular stories and poems, including "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven." He will also read from letters that show how Poe used his life experiences to weave his unforgettable tales.

"I've been a fan of his for a while," Neth says. "His narratives tend to lend themselves to be turned into monologues."

His "partner in crime" in the project is director Andrea Cartagena, whom he met when both acted in Pennsylvania Playhouse's "Company."

"We wanted to work together and were looking for a project on which we could collaborate," Neth says. "We came up with the concept to use his stories as a commentary on his life since many are almost autobiographical."

Neth says "The Tell-Tale Heart" is filled with resentment because Poe felt his adopted father treated him badly. Many of Poe's stories deal with bitterness and revenge.

"You see his machinations working out in his stories," Neth says.

The performance will include video projections of images made to look old "like an 1800s slide show." There is also original music by Daniel Sottile.

The three-level set includes Poe's writing desk, as well as "pretty ominous" ramps, ladders and platforms made from distressed industrial wood, says Neth..

The performance also include two of Poe's satires -- The Devil in the Belfry," which pokes fun at a small Dutch village called Vondervotteimittis (wonder-what-time-it-is?), and "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," in which Poe relates what happens to Scheherazade after the original "1001 Arabian Nights."

"They are kind of surprises that are very funny," says Neth.

-- "Poe: A Madman Knows Nothing," 8 p.m. Oct. 11, 12, 17-19 and 3 p.m. Oct. 11, 12 and 19-20, Ice House, Sand Island, Bethlehem. Tickets: $25; $20, students and seniors. Info: 888-895-5645, http://www.allentownpublictheatre.com.

Tesia Nicoli had been teaching adult acting classes for East Penn School District continuing education for years and her students urged her to start her own theater group.

After being involved in a fundraiser at her church, Nicoli thought she would like to put together a theater show that supported a charity.

"I felt we could do a show and impact the community," she says. "That's where the name Global Impactors Group came from."

She says a production of Poe's stories seemed a natural.

"Poe has always been influential in my life," she says. "I like to write short stories and was always fascinated by Poe."

For "Spirit of Poe: 13 Haunting Stories," Nicoli adapted seven stories and six poems. They will be be performed by a cast of 15, including Nicoli, who also directs. Included are some of Poe's most popular works, including "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Masque of Red Death," "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," and the poems "The Raven," and "Alone," which opens the show.

The show also uses liberal sound and lighting effects in the stories, particularly "The Fall of the House of Usher."

In "Morella," Nicoli performs the lead role with her daughter, 13-year-old Jada. It was a "necessary evil" she says because having a mother and daughter who look very much alike is an important element of the plot.

'"There's something like 60 characters in all the stories," Nicoli says. "It was incredibly daunting but everyone's been so enthusiastic. It's coming together and it's getting exciting."

The show will benefit The Macungie Institute, which preserves the history of the region.

-- "Spirit of Poe: 13 Haunting Stories," 8 p.m. Oct. 18 and 25 and 4 and 9 p.m. Oct. 26, Macungie Institute, 510 E. Main St.. Tickets: $15, matinee; $17; $25 for front-row seats, which includes a soft drink. Info: 484-891-1314 or email: GlobalimpACTORS@gmail.com.

kathy.lauer@mcall.com

610-778-2235

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