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StageStruck: Rude Awakening

This is not your parents' high school musical.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Time was when community theater was a cozy middle-of-the-road affair that seldom strayed from the comfortably familiar. While many amateur troupes now edge into the fast lane with more challenging dramas, the musicals that require community theaters' greatest resources, engage the largest casts and, not incidentally, provide their seasons' biggest box office still keep pretty close to the center lane.

Straddling a fork in that road is Greene Room Productions, a little theater company cum acting school based in Monson. Twice a year the group's founder/director, Erin Greene, brings a production to the Academy of Music. One of the offerings is always a kid-oriented family show, like last fall's James and the Giant Peach. The other alternates between the tried and true (Little Shop of Horrors, Oliver!) and much edgier material than most small-town troupes would contemplate.

I first encountered Greene's work in 2008, with a cheeky production of the boundary-busting glam-trans-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Two seasons ago Greene Room mounted The Who's Tommy. And now they're back at the Academy with Spring Awakening, that rude and lewd high school musical about teenage sex (gay and straight), suicide, masturbation, child abuse, bullying, abortion, wet dreams and bad grades.

The show is based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, which scandalized its prim German audiences and has been frequently banned ever since. The play ferociously condemns the era's repressed and repressive culture by detailing its toxic effect on the lives of a group of 14-year-olds. The tale of innocence, ignorance and sexual awakening may be a century old, but its themes still resonate, and Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's 2006 musical makes the play's relevance to contemporary adolescence, and its smoldering sexuality, explicit. The time period isn't updated, but the musical numbers are set to indie rock with distinctly post-Victorian lyrics: "Just fuck it, right? Enough—that's it!/ Another day of utter shit."

Greene, a one-woman juggernaut who is credited here as producer/director/choreographer/set-and-costume designer, has emulated the New York production without mimicking it. The boys and girls still pull microphones out of their 19th-century costumes, hormonal Hanschen still jerks off center stage, and the set is flanked by bleachers where the actors sit when "offstage," part naughty students in detention and part Greek chorus. But there are original choreographic touches, including some pop 'n' lock echoes; the air is hung with painter Andrea Newland's tributes to the iconoclastic artists of Wedekind's period; and the legendary trap door in the Academy's stage floor, originally constructed for Houdini's escape act, is once again in use.

The cast, mostly high school and college students, gives the production a vigorous and heartfelt energy, although there are no real rock voices in the ensemble. Colby J. Herchel and Jasmine Kearse, as two lost and lonely souls, are the vocal standouts, and Becca Cooley and Colin Tracy are poignantly effective as the tragic lovers, innocent Wendla and rebellious Melchior. Devon Louise Bakum and Bob Laviolette play all the adult roles—the children's strait-laced parents and tyrannical teachers—with almost vicious formality. Elizabeth Weber leads a tight four-piece on-stage band and Michael Clark Wonson provides impressively moody lighting.

Spring Awakening: May 11, 8 p.m., May 12, 3 and 8 p.m., Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton, (413)584-9032, academyofmusictheatre.com.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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