It Might As Well Be ‘Spring’

Director Carlos Armesto rehearses Elena Ricardo and Renee Bang Allen in a scene from SPRING AWAKENING, the new ReVision Theater production on view at Asbury’s Carousel House beginning August 4.

It was just a day or so ago that ReVision Theatre Company rang down the invisible curtain on their production of Xanadu — the light ‘n lively, fun and frothy, poppy, peppy, wacky, wink-y opener to a new season of musical entertainments at Asbury Park’s historic Carousel House.

Comes the first weekend in August, and it’s like Spring has sprung inside the rococo roundhouse performance space at the south end of the Boardwalk. Specifically, Spring Awakening — a show that, to the uninitiated, sounds like a regular frolic in the park in the merry month of May.

Take a closer look at the 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical (and its 1891 source play, a script by Frank Wedekind that has frequently found itself the subject of bans and boycotts) and you’ll find an ensemble coming-of-age saga that’s infinitely more dark, edgy, passionate and heartbreakingly, scrupulously honest than the umpteenth Community Players revival of Grease.

Set in late 19th century Germany, it’s a tumultuous piece — set to an alt-rock score by Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sater — in which a group of fast-maturing  young people rebel against the stodgy strictures of an obsolete education system and clueless parents; obsessing each step of the way about sex sex sex. Characters tumble into first sexual experiences, indulge in erotic fantasies, engage in reckless experiments in sadomasochism, confess histories of abuse, attempt suicide, encounter back-alley abortionists and break into songs with names like “My Junk,” “The Bitch of Living,” and “Totally Fucked.”

In other words, not exactly fodder for the school drama club or those aforementioned Community Players — but any residual shock value aside, Spring Awakening is a timeless tale of yearning, frustration, curiosity, connection and escape that transcends its sepia-toned 19th century setting, proving conclusively that postwar America never held a monopoly or a patent on teen rebellion. So, despite the Tonys (eight in all) and the smash productions on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s a show whose inaugural NJ production is best entrusted to the ReVision team.

For the engagement that previews on Thursday, August 4 and opens the following Friday night, the ReVees have once again secured the services of a friend and frequent collaborator — Carlos Armesto, artistic director of New York-based theatre C and a director whose previous endeavors in Asbury Park have included ReVision’s Kingdom and The Who’s TOMMY. He’s working with a cast that’s toplined by member of the Spring Awakening National Tour company — Billy Lewis, whose appearance here as the angry, passionate student Melchior overlapped with his stint in the cast of Xanadu. Also in the cast of twelve are Elena Ricardo, Noah Zachary, Hannah Shankman and Travis Mitchell, another veteran of the show’s National Tour. Elisabetta Spuria returns to ReVision as choreographer, and the rock-driven pit band is once more skippered by Michael Thomas Murray.

We caught up with director Armesto during rehearsals at downtown Asbury’s VFW hall (where Kingdom was staged to great acclaim in 2009); flip the pixelated page for more.

Travis Mitchell and Noah Zachary are directed by Carlos Armesto in rehearsal at Asbury Park’s VFW Post hall.

upperWETside: From XANADU to SPRING AWAKENING in one fell swoop…and you’ve even got one of your poor cast members working on both at the same time. It represents something of a coup for ReVision, as I’m sure the rights to this show were highly sought after as soon as they came up for grabs…

CARLOS ARMESTO: The people who held the rights actually made a special call to ReVision to offer them the chance to do it first in this area…they saw our Tommy last season, and thought it would be a good fit.

TOMMY of course was one of your collaborations with ReVision…a very intensely energetic, perpetual motion machine as I recall. And I felt your actors’ pain during that Christmas scene inside the Carousel hothouse, with the winter coats and the makeup running off their faces and into the sea…

That was a co-production between ReVision and my company, but Spring Awakening is entirely a ReVision project. I’m happy to be back working with them again, and rehearsing here in the building where you’ll remember we did Kingdom a couple of seasons back.

I’m excited about this show of course…the way we’re trying to do it is more raw, more ROCK than the original, which I guess you could say had kind of a folk-rock feel to it in places. There’s more RAGE to it, more guitar where the original had violins. It’s still Duncan Sheik’s music, but we’re making it a bit more nine inch nails!

It is an angst-ier show versus THE BIKINIS and other things that ReVision has put out for public consumption. I think a lot of people who saw the Broadway TV commercials, which kind of gave off a Green Day vibe in spots, found a much different sort of show when they got there.

It’s a show with some very intense moments. These kids, growing up as they are in this society where the Industrial Age is creeping into this parochial Germany of 1892, are filled with this passion to break out, express themselves, explore their sexuality and things like S&M.

The writers of this show made the angst of these kids palpable throughout. It’s something that we’re expanding upon in all aspects of the production, this sense of yearning to break out. You’ll see it in Steven Kemp’s set design, where this oppressive looking, industrial backdrop breaks open to reflect that sense of release. The costumes expand upon that as well…we go from these buttoned up, corseted, heavy, colorless 19th century styles to a more free and open look that still has aspects of the period, along with what you could call a “rock” element to it.

I’m sure your cast will be very happy to ditch the high collars and shoe buttons at the earliest opportunity. There’s obviously a timelessly teenage theme to this story…the authors certainly intended to convey the fact that youth angst was not exclusively a 20th century invention. What’s interesting here is that these wayward youths, who in real life might have gravitated to becoming painters or poets, instead get in touch with their inner alternative rock stars…

Right, we’re keeping things very intense, very real, and then…CONCERT! But it really works to capture the way these kids feel; the way they express themselves…in this case through music. This form of expression just came out of angst and rage, and you’ll find echoes of it in things that predate it by many years.

At the same time this story that’s set in 19th century Europe remains very relevant to our lives, and to current events like the Tyler Clementi suicide, or the controversy over something like the TV show SKINS, in which it becomes clear that many parents are still unable to deal with sex after all these years. These problems remain constant.

Now, you’re not that much of an old timer yourself, but as a director working with a fairly young cast, on something that addresses theses kinds of issues head-on, do you find yourself cast in the role of counselor, mentor, almost a parental sort of figure?

I tend to think that it wasn’t that long ago that I was going through those same sort of issues…maybe it was, but sometimes it seems like it was just yesterday. I remember how I felt at that stage of my life, and dealing with the young performers in this cast, I try to give a sense that it wasn’t that long ago that I felt the same way.

I have to say that we have an amazing cast for this production, and we got a tremendous response when we put out the call. We got over a thousand submissions for this show, we were looking for people who had an edge, and everybody in this cast was our first choice. Billy Lewis, who was in the national tour of the show, has a great voice…he’s a natural rock star.,

Well, you seem to have a natural rapport with everything that ReVision is all about…I’m sure you don’t have any sort of formal agreement with the company, but do you see this regular collaboration existing as a once-a-year thing at least?

We keep pretty busy with our company; we’re working right now on a re-interpretation of The Rite of Spring, and we also have an opera commission…but I’d love to stay involved with ReVision on some sort of basis; I think they’ve done a lot to establish themselves in the short time they’ve been up and running, and I’m hoping that the next couple of years really see things fall into place for them. They do a lot of unusual, quality work here, and I appreciate the chance to be a part of it. Anytime you have the opportunity to touch people, to really move the audience and make them see something, well, who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

SPRING AWAKENING comes to bloom on Thursday, August 4; opens August 5 (with an after party available to ticketholders) and continues through August 28 with performances at 8:00pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 7:00pm Sundays. Tickets range from $18 to $52, and can be reserved right here.

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