Life Stage

Life Stage

“Okay, stop. I want to make a change,” director Marc Deaton says. A dozen young performers come to a halt, and Deaton walks them through a new, more complicated series of movements, then asks them to perform the song again, “from the top.” They do it with the new choreography. And it is better.

They’re rehearsing at Madison Lyric Stage, where the show, Spring Awakening, will open this Friday at 7 p.m. The play, a musical focused on teenage sexuality and the taboos around it, is set in late 19th-century Germany, period wardrobe and all. Tonight the actors are dressed mostly in T-shirts and shorts, and with only days remaining before opening night, one of the actors shows up with a severely short haircut, perhaps reflecting a period style to match his costume. MLS is on the grounds of Madison’s Deacon John Grave House, built in 1681, and the theater company uses the house as dressing rooms for the cast. So a group of twenty-somethings in the 21st century will be conjuring the 19th century in a home built in the 17th.

The play itself has a lengthy history behind it. Based on a straight drama written in 1891, it began to attract notice about 100 years later with a series of workshops. It was rewritten into a folk-rock musical version which came to life off-Broadway. It made its Broadway debut in 2006, winning eight Tony awards including Best Musical, and got a Broadway revival in 2015. Now it’s arriving in Madison.

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Most of the cast of this production are college students majoring in music and acting, and when I ask for a show of hands of those who want a career in anything other than theater, not a hand goes up. During a break, Rebecca Tobin, who plays the leading female, Wendla, summed up the dream. “The ultimate would be Broadway, but London—anywhere.” Fellow lead Keegan Sells, who plays Wendla’s love interest, Melchior, echoed her hope. “Broadway’s the end goal, right? It’s the NBA of theater. Something in acting or behind the scenes as well. Theater in some capacity.”

Deaton, the artistic director at MLS, and John Johmann, the executive director, have already been to New York. Deaton found globetrotting success as an opera singer and more. Johmann was a working actor, but his career in PR took off first. Along the way, they married each other and, in 2007, moved to Madison, cofounding MLS at their home in 2012 before migrating it to the Grave House property.

It’s possible to hear about a musical performed in a quaint, historic shoreline setting and mistake it for a typical summer staging. While standard seasonal fare runs to light hearts and plenty of laughs, with a harmless plot and melodies you’ll be humming as you leave the theater, Spring Awakening portrays adolescents confronting powerful and risky sexual urges in an environment where talk of sex is verboten, leading to tragic results.

“We like to make people aware of what’s out there,” Deaton says, referring to the serious issues of life. “There are a lot of theaters. I think if you’re constantly pandering, by giving the same things they’re doing in every other theater, well then, for me, art goes away.”

You likely won’t be humming a happy tune as you leave Spring Awakening. But the art will stay with you.

Spring Awakening at Madison Lyric Stage
Deacon John Grave House – 581 Boston Post Rd, Madison (map)
July 21-July 30
(203) 215-6329

Written by Jim Murphy. Images, of an earlier rehearsal, provided courtesy of Madison Lyric Stage.

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