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Gloucester Gets ‘Spring’ In Its Step, Could Use Even More

The cast of Gloucester Stage Company's "Spring Awakening." (Gary Ng)

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GLOUCESTER – Boston theaters have done a fine job in recent years of adapting musicals originally written for large stages into a chamber format. Eric Engel and Gloucester Stage Company get into the act this summer with a smart, sober production of one of the better rock musicals in recent years, “Spring Awakening.”

There’s a problem in that equation, though. I’m not sure smart and sober are the primary ingredients for a great production of “Spring Awakening.” This is Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony-winning adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 blistering attack on the German middle class, an attack that has resonated with any rebel with or without a cause ever since — at least for those rebels who read German expressionist drama.

Sater and Sheik brilliantly caught that rebellious spirit and stayed pretty true to the sex and Goethe and rock ‘n’ roll Wedekind sensibility. The touring production that Broadway in Boston brought here a few years ago was eye-popping and ear-piercing.

Engel has gone for something far more subdued. The young turn-of-the-century teens act out their issues on a bare stage with a bridge in the background as the only real scenery. Their issues translate to our time without much goosing – puritanical and hypocritical parents, alienation, suicide, and back-alley abortions, which could be part of our future as well as our past are there. The issues shine through here.

Sarah Oakes Muirhead and Russ Mumford. (Gary Ng)

Sarah Oakes Muirhead and Russ Mumford. (Gary Ng)

The cast is excellent (though I was more drawn to sidekicks Ross “Eraserhead” Mumford and Sarah Oakes Muirhead than to the leads), the singing and musicianship are all on target, and Engel’s direction is snappy and polished.

It’s all a little too subdued, however. Rock musicals are supposed to, well, rock and this “Spring Awakening” just croons. That electric jolt that goes through the Broadway or Broadway in Boston audience never happens. It’s also not as sexually provocative as the original production, so in terms of sex and Goethe and rock ‘n’ roll only Goethe comes out looking better than on Broadway.

It should be said that the decision not to mike the singers at Gloucester Stage is almost always a good thing, and if you amp up the band you also have to amplify the singers. Could a small space like Gloucester Stage take that much amplification? It will be interesting to see how the Chester Theatre Company deals with the issue in a similar space with this week’s world premiere of Sater and Sheik’s “Arms on Fire,” but if the score is anything like “Spring Awakening” it’s going to need more juice.

Were other compromises made to spare Gloucester-ite sensibilities? One would hope that small theaters like Gloucester don’t feel the need to be more conservative than commercial theater, but these are strange times.

Still, there are shows where you’ve just got to let your hair down and rock out. “Spring Awakening” is one of them.

Here’s a selection from the Broadway version: