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by Michael Portantiere

Spring Reawakening

  • Gerard Canonico, Hunter Parrish, and Alexandra Socha in SPRING AWAKENING; photo by Cass Bird

    Spring Reawakening

    An actor friend of mine complains that he'll never be able to get a good part on Broadway unless he first becomes a known quantity on television -- and, let's face it, he has good reason to feel that way. More and more often, performers with various amounts of TV-Q are hired for plum Broadway roles, usually as replacements, because the public-recognition factor is seen by producers as guaranteeing good box-office for the shows they join.

    This sort of thing leads to much consternation and carping when the actors in question can't cut the mustard. On the other hand, it's a win-win situation for everyone involved when a TV-to-Broadway transplant displays real stage chops. Such is the happy case with Hunter Parrish, from the cast of TV's Weeds, who recently assumed the central role of the "radical" young mensch Melchior in the Tony Award-winning Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening.

    That the kid is gorgeous and talented is no secret to his Weeds fans, But, of course, screen acting isn't the same as stage acting -- and furthermore, Weeds isn't a musical. In his Spring Awakening songs, Parrish reveals a singing voice so beautiful and emotionally expressive that, if he ever decided to give up acting (God forbid!), I'll bet he could have a major career as a pop singer.

    Another big surprise of his accomplished, deeply moving performance is his speaking voice. Without for a moment sounding affected, Parrish delivers Melchior's lines in resonant tones that indicate he'd be great in classical theater. (What a Romeo he would be! Hey, Mr. Producer...) In sum, his performance is a triumph. As a YouTube commentator tagged vincenator2193 put it so succinctly and eloquently, "i thought he was gunna be another actor turned broadway who sucks but surprisingly, he was excellent."

    No less wonderful are Alexandra Socha and Gerard Canonico, who are now playing the tragic Wendla Bergmann and Moritz Stiefel. I don't know Socha's actual age, but she comes across as even younger than Lea Michele, her predecessor in the part. This, plus the actress's achingly innocent characterization, makes Wendla's wholly unprepared sexual initiatiion and subsequent death at the hands of an abortionist seem even more cruel and tragic than before.

    Canonico has graduated with honors from the ensemble of Spring Awakening to the role of the angst-ridden Moritz. He's not ideally cast from a physical standpoint; Moritz, with his Eraserhead hair and his raging hormones, seems more ideally embodied by a taller, thinner, ganglier actor such as John Gallagher, Jr, who won a Tony Award for originating the part, than the shorter and rounder Canonico. But this new Moritz gives a beautifully nuanced performance, capturing some subtleties in the character that were not present in Gallagher's brilliant but very broad portrayal.

    Among the other new and noteworthy members of the cast are Amanda Castanos and Emma Hunton as, respectively, the physically and sexually abused Martha and Ilse. Glenn Fleshler has been playing the adult male roles for some time, and he does a great job with all of them -- especially the show's chief villain, Moritz's heartless father.

    With so much excellence attached to the production, I'm sorry to report that the two low points of Spring Awakening are now lower than ever. Two pivotal scenes -- the opener, in which Wendla's mother tries but fails miserably to explain the facts of life to her daugher, and the Act II gay seduction sequence -- continue to be directed and played inappropriately for laughs. Yes, Spring Awakening needs some comic relief, and there is a certain degree of inherent humor in these scenes; but they should absolutely not be played in the way-over-the-top style of a comedy revue sketch by Christine Estabrook as Frau Bergmann and the two young actors who are now filling the roles of Ernst and Hanschen.

    The only other real flaw I noticed in the show when I recently attended was that some of the cast members pronounced the German word "fraulein" incorrectly. (Guys, it's "FROY-line," not "FROW-line.") Depite its few major and minor lapses, Spring Awakening remains a soul-stirring theatrical experience, thanks largely to Hunter Parrish and the other new additions to the company. Given the impressively strong casting of this beautiful contemporary musical thus far, future cast replacements will have a lot to live up to; but, as we've already seen, there's an amazing amount of talent out there. Here's looking forward.

    Published on Friday, September 19, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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