"Spring Awakening"

Director brings fresh vision to musical about adolescent angst at the oakland



“Spring Awakening” is a piece of theater that’s close to the heart of Liz Rubino, who is a drama therapist and a stage professional.

The Tony Award-winning musical (including Best Musical) will get its Valley premiere Friday when the Oakland Center for the Arts opens a two-weekend run.

Rubino is the director, and she is stamping the production with her own unique vision, based on her knowledge of the psychology of teenagers.

“Spring Awakening” is based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, which was banned in his native Germany. It deals with the burgeoning sexual awakening of youths in the then-repressive and socially rigid country. Lack of information and pressure to conform only heightens the anxiety of the young school students in the story.

Though the musical also is set in the 1800s, it features a modern rock score by Duncan Sheik (“Barely Breathing”). This might seem like an odd clash, but the urgency in the music fits perfectly with teens of any era.

The Broadway version of the play bounces from boiling urges to release, and awkward tension to ludicrous humor, as it deals with the issues of sexuality, rape, incest, teen pregnancy and abortion.

Rubino’s version will go a step beyond, as the director aims to get inside the mind of the adolescent in this most unsettled phase of life.

“It’s all about power, control and struggle,” said Rubino, whose stage vision will utilize the concepts of mirrors and levels of power.

“It’s so deeply emotional on so many levels,” she said. “The psychology of it speaks to me.”

Rubino is an Actors Equity actress (last seen locally in the Youngstown Playhouse’s “Gypsy”) and an instructor who splits her time between New York and Youngstown, where she teaches musical theater. She is also a drama therapist in New York, a psychological specialty that utilizes theater concepts — role playing, metaphors, etc. — to emotionally rehabilitate people. “People can get stuck in one role in life, so you have to move them through it,” she said by way of explanation.

Rubino’s approach to “Spring Awakening” is more involved than the original and utilizes her knowledge of the adolescent — and the adult — mind.

“We are all a mirror of something else,” she said. “Sometimes it is the person in front of us, or the other person in a relationship.” Rubino’s staging will aim this concept toward the audience.

Teens also see adults as being above them, she further explained, and the Oakland’s production will physically portray this mind-set.

Though the Broadway version jumps between serious and comical, Rubino said her version is complete reality. “It comes from the ‘I have to serve what’s going on in my body right now’ [sense of urgency],” she said. “That’s how teens feel.”

The rock music and lyrics also will help open the students’ thoughts to the audience. Matt White is music director.

Like the 1891 book, the musical “Spring Awakening” caused a stir because of its frank — and wildly imaginative — depictions of sex, including a stylized musical number based on masturbation.

Rubino said the scene is well-crafted because “everyone in it, male and female, is reflecting what’s going on in their head.”

Though the Broadway version included scenes of partial nudity, the Oakland version will show a little less skin but a little more in terms of the depiction of sex, said Rubino.

Although Rubino seems to have a stronger grasp on “Spring Awakening” than almost anybody, she was not the original director.

Michael Dempsey was slated to direct before he left the Oakland. Rubino said she was happy when she got the call to step in and take over the reins. “It’s been in my heart,” she said.

The production already had been cast when she took over. Most of the actors playing the students are between age 19 and 23, and all but three of them are newcomers to the local theater scene.

The buzz surrounding the play drew auditionees from Kent, Cleveland and elsewhere in Northeast Ohio, said Rubino.

As in the Broadway version, all of the adult parts are played by two actors — David El’Hatton and Kris Harrington.

The students are played by local acting veterans Kayla Boye, Matthew Schomer and Bernadette Lim, as well as Craig Rotz, Lindsay Kostelnik, Kristopher Ray North, Kaleigh Locketti, Tyler Hanes, Megan Kaye, Mathew Malloy, Ray Wriston and Patience Knowles.

Billie Anzevino, a dance instructor at Ballet Western Reserve, is the choreographer.

The musical also will be the first production at the Oakland since the removal of the stage platform. The renovation has created a more expansive and versatile performance area without disrupting sight lines.

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