A Show That’s Upfront About Sexuality
July 27, 2012
by Topher Levin
When you’re a theater company known for adventurous teen programming, living up to your reputation often means thinking outside the box and challenging yourself to present unique and surprising programs to your audiences. With the Coterie Theatre’s upcoming production of the award-winning Broadway musical Spring Awakening, the theater looks set to raise the bar yet again.
The show, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by 1990s pop-rock artist Duncan Sheik, won an impressive eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The Coterie production’s promotional material says the show will deliver “raging choreography” and a “magnetic young cast” in this musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1890s play of the same name.
But why celebrate spring in September? For the Coterie, there’s a lot to celebrate — 2012 marks the 34th season of live theater at the Coterie as well as the 20th anniversary of the Dramatic Health Education Project.
Coterie’s producing artistic director, Jeff Church, said, “The more we thought about it — because the Coterie is really interested in the well-being of teenagers and we have a project that goes into the schools — it started making sense that the idea of giving teens information — frank information — matches up to the theme of the play.”
The Coterie’s Dramatic Health Education Project pairs dramatic monologues on being young and being HIV- positive with peer educator question-and-answer sessions led by medical students from UMKC School of Medicine and Pharmacy and the KU Medical Center School of Nursing. The award-winning program aims to present a balanced message on sexual health to 8,000 eighth- through 12th-grade students annually. Its intent seems the complete opposite of the prudish adult characters in Wedekind’s play.
“It’s interesting,” muses Church. “It seems to always shock people that not giving teenagers the information they need about sex leads them to make bad choices. It seems not very surprising, does it?”
The musical, a faithful adaptation of Wedekind’s original play, follows a group of teens as they discover and explore their own sexuality. As the teen characters experience their sexual awakenings, the adult characters are intent on avoiding frank discussions, which leads some characters to disastrous consequences.
The production is part of the Coterie at Night series, and the story deals with serious issues head-on, including abortion, child abuse, suicide and homosexuality. Church hopes the production will appeal to a wide audience, including Kansas City’s LGBT community.
“Anything to do with hiding sex from adults — or feeling like you have to — is of concern to an LGBT audience because of what it’s like to be gay, particularly in the heartland,” Church explains.
“A lot of the lyric content will refer to gay sex attractions. Not all the way through the play, but there are moments scattered through, and by the end of the play, you see that two of the male characters have come together. Of all the plot lines in the show that end in tragedy or serious choices that get kids into trouble, [it’s"> the two gay characters [that"> are kind of crafty and make the choice to kind of separate themselves. So interestingly, that plot line doesn’t end in the mess that all the other plot lines do.”
A gay storyline from a hundred-year-old play is likely to surprise audiences, and Wedekind’s play seems truly ahead of its time.
“It’s always been interesting to me, you know?” Church says. “What’s fun about that is that the rock musical didn’t change that. That’s how it was originally in the original 1890s play that Frank Wedekind wrote. ... I think that’s the neat thing … It still works today.”
The Coterie production has a cast and crew of familiar names for Kansas City’s LGBT theater community. The production team includes veteran professionals such as Church and music director Anthony Edwards. The cast includes, among others, Steven Eubank, Shea Coffman, Hughston Walkinshaw, and a relative newcomer, Tyler Eisenreich.
Eisenreich just graduated from high school this spring, but he is already one to watch, gaining attention for his acting skills and winning the Starlight Theatre’s 2012 Blue Star Award for Outstanding Actor in a Leading Role as Jimmy Smith in his high school’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The prize included a weeklong workshop in New York.
Of his recent successes, Eisenreich said, “Yeah, winning the award was crazy. I just went in it not expecting anything. I was just happy to be there.”
In New York, he gained valuable insight from the cast of NBC’s musical drama series mash — experience that he’ll be bringing to his role in Spring Awakening.
“The trip was awesome. It was a lot of work packed into six days with rehearsals [all day long">. We got to work one on one with [the cast"> on solos, and they really helped us with the acting side of singing a song. I got to work with Leslie [Odom Jr.">.”
Yet for Eisenreich, having Brian d’Arcy James, a Tony-nominated Broadway actor and current star of Smash, announcing the winners was the best part.
“That was really freaking cool to hear him say my name. That was really freaking cool,” he said.
As Ernst, Eisenreich plays one-half of the couple in the gay storyline running through Spring Awakening.
“He’s a younger soul than most the other characters,” Eisenreich notes. “He’s not immature, but innocent. He’s really quiet and [keeps"> to himself. He is gay, but that’s not said directly, but it’s assumed by Hänschen [Shea Coffman"> that he is in love with. His innocence gets the better of him and he gets used by Hänschen, who is very suave and cool and very knowledgeable about the world.”
Church adds, “Tyler’s character [Ernst"> wants to be sexually involved and is with a character [Shea Coffman’s Hänschen"> who is probably more advanced sexually. So it’s a kind of interesting dynamic between the two, that the one is more experienced than the other. One is more jaded than the other, I would say. Tyler’s character plays somewhat of an innocent that wants to become more sexually active [in his storyline with Coffman’s"> character.”
Interestingly, with Eisenreich newer to Kansas City’s theater scene and Coffman a more established performer, there’s almost a similarity between the characters and the actors themselves.
“Ever since our callbacks, he’s been showing me the ropes of the whole community,” Eisenreich said of Coffman. “He’s been an older brother figure.”
Church says that the Coterie’s new staging of Spring Awakening is worth checking out, even for those who have seen the award-winning show on Broadway or in its touring production.
Although the Coterie’s production is a full Broadway staging — with no cuts for content or length — Church says, “If somebody were to say to me, ‘What’s the difference between the Coterie’s interpretation and the Broadway show?’ I would say it’s a great difference because at the Coterie, you’re going to be seeing it in an audience of just 200 people, in a very intimate theater, and you’re going to be up close and personal with the performers. ... The scenic concept will also be very different than the New York production, so if anybody’s seen the original, they’ll find a whole different experience [here">. And anybody who hasn’t seen the original should do themselves the service of seeing what this play is all about and why this play has been a topic of conversation outside of just the theater [world"> because it was really a cultural phenomenon and a game-changer when it came out.”
On playing this character who is close to his own age, Eisenreich says, “I think being a teenager still, I think it’s like, directly relatable. We think we know exactly what we want from life and we work toward that. Whether it’s what we want to do in life or who we want to love, we live with that goal in mind. But when it actually comes time to take control [of our lives"> and make that happen, it’s not so easy.”
Spring Awakening plays Sept. 6-30 at the Coterie Theatre (coterietheatre.org) as part of the Coterie at Night Series. The production contains content for mature audiences; no one under 13 will be admitted.