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Exit 82 Theatre Company Shakes Things Up with Spring Awakening!

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Actors mill about — some chatting with one another, others savoring a moment of solitude — before baring their souls to a small audience of invited guests at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ.

The cast of Toms River, NJ’s Exit 82 Theatre Company is readying itself for its final dress rehearsal of Spring Awakening at The Strand this hot May 17, 2017 evening.

First, the ensemble warms up with musical director, Kristin DeLucci, all vocalizing, “I love to sing.”

Following vocal warm-ups, various actors in 19th-century costumes flow onto the stage and test their microphones by reciting their “ABCs” or the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

Next, Spring Awakening choreographer Grace Szczepkowski watches as the entire company does a run through of a dance number, giving the actors some final pointers and nodding with approval.

Afterwards, director Tyler Cicardo takes the stage and arranges props as he consults with individual cast members.

Cicardo, 24, makes his Exit 82 directorial debut with Spring Awakening, a show he tells us he’s seen “over 20 times.”

Explains Cicardo, “It’s gratifying to put my own vision into this piece that means so much to me.”

According to Cicardo, Spring Awakening is a musical which takes place in a provincial German town in the late 1890s, but — surprisingly — is married to a present-day rock music score brought to life by characters who break into song using hand-held microphones and dance with abandon.

States Cicardo, “We use lights and sounds to bridge the gap between the parallel of the contemporary music and the hundred-year-old story so they fluidly work with each other.”

For those unfamiliar with Spring Awakening, it is a story about teenagers who come of age in the repressive world of late 19th-century Germany. In the show, the characters grapple with sexuality, depression, social pressure, and more — all while trying to stay true to themselves.

Reveals Cicardo — whose prior association with Exit 82 Theatre Company has been primarily as an actor — “even though Spring Awakening is a show that will appeal to young adults, as a theater company, we strive to offer something for everyone as our summer show will be The Wedding Singer, and then we’ll present Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods in November.”

With regard to the company’s present production, Cicardo discloses, “Spring Awakening is one of my favorite shows. I first saw it when I was 14,” going on to add, “When I found out I would be directing it, I personally asked my former high school choir director, Kristin DeLucci, if she would be the musical director. I simply couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else.”

As it turns out, Spring Awakening is DeLucci’s second stint as a musical director with Exit 82, her former production being Legally Blonde.

Says DeLucci about her experience working on this musical, “We started rehearsals in early March and started run-throughs the first week of May. Everyone has his or her day to rehearse — acting/blocking, choreography, singing — we all work around everyone’s schedules, as these are all puzzle pieces that have to meld together to create a unified production.”

Explaining how the music for this production is able to fit so seamlessly with the show’s choreography, DeLucci admits, “I actually sat in on some of the choreography rehearsals just to see what was going on — physically — during the singing. Grace Szczepkowski’s choreography is not like the original Broadway show for, as dark as this show is, she has a beautiful vision for how it should look in terms of the dancing.”

Although — with its off-color language and raw subject matter — Spring Awakening is considered by some to be a controversial piece of contemporary musical theater, DeLucci states, “This show is intergenerational in that the subject and emotions it deals with are felt from one generation to the next, so anyone who has been through adolescence can relate to the topics in the musical.”

In talking about her own experience seeing Spring Awakening on Broadway, DeLucci reveals, “When I first saw the show in New York, I sat in the orchestra. The second time I went to see it, however, I sat in one of the seats that was set up for audience members right on the stage and, there, I felt the entire angst of the show — you just become engulfed in that world! And the point is: we all feel the same emotions and frustration, so let’s just be a part of the show.”

And similarly to how it was presented on Broadway, Exit 82’s production of Spring Awakening at The Strand has limited on-stage seating for audience members at each performance. Theatergoers fortunate enough to secure tickets for the on-stage seats will have an opportunity to practically reach out and touch the singers, actors, and dancers who will bring director Tyler Cicardo’s and choreographer Grace Szczepkowski’s artistic vision for Spring Awakening to life.

Says Szczepkowski — who in the past has worked as both an actor and as a director, in addition to being a choreographer, “This is my first show with Exit 82 — and it’s one I really love.”

With regards to how she developed her original steps and movements for Spring Awakening, Szczepkowski acknowledges, “When I choreograph a song, I ask myself, ‘What is this song saying, and what is its essence?’ My job is to understand the message and use it to help advance the story through movement. To me, this show is both lyrical and modern and, as a result, I wanted the choreography to to be flowy and beautiful.”

And with respect to her first experience working with Exit 82 at The Strand, Szczepkowski exclaims, “I love it! The Exit 82 performers and Strand staff are so dedicated — it’s just a great theater company to work with and a beautiful theater to work in.”

One Exit 82 personality who wholeheartedly agrees with Szczepkowski is Nicole Grassano, a former actress with the company who is now co-producing her first Exit 82 musical.

When asked what responsibilities her job as a producer entails, Grassano explains, “I’m in charge of the business side of putting together the show — things like securing musicians for the orchestra, obtaining sound equipment, and helping to develop the set — in addition to auditions and casting, and dealing with ticket orders, programs, and merchandising.”

Excited about her first time co-producing a musical theater piece, Grassano admits, “This was a good show to get my feet wet, and I’ve really enjoyed working with Sean Openshaw, who has been an Exit 82 producer before.”

She also reveals, “For this show, many of us at Exit 82 have shifted roles. In previous productions, I was an actor — now I’m a producer. One of our long-time producers, Keely Davenport, is now an actor. My co-producer, Sean Openshaw, typically works as an Exit 82 director and a choreographer. And Tyler Cicardo, who has previously acted in our shows, is now our director! All of these changes make this show special and cool — so even though within our Exit 82 family, many of the pawns have moved, it all still really works.”

Despite all the shake-ups, states Grassano, one thing that hasn’t changed is Exit 82’s appreciation for The Strand Theater and all of the people who work here.

Asserts Grassano, “The Strand is a staple historic theater — it’s just beautiful— so being able to present your work in an environment like this takes your production to a whole new level, especially in comparison to presenting it in, for instance, a high school auditorium. Plus, we love all of the people at The Strand — technical director Chris Everett, lighting designer Emily Lovell, and all the rest — we’ve been here working with them since 2015 and we just love ‘em.”

And how does she expect all the theatrical shake-ups involved with Exit 82’s production of Spring Awakening will translate to audience members who come out to support the show at The Strand?

Concludes Grassano, “What’s always made Exit 82 unique as a theater company is: we are always ready to take a risk — not just for us, but for our audiences. And that’s something we can all grow from — so let’s just take it and run with it.”

For more information on Exit 82 Theatre Company’s production of Spring Awakening at The Strand Theater — which has show times on Friday, May 19 at 8pm and Saturday, May 20 at 2pm and 8pm — please go to www.exit82theatre.com. To learn more about future productions at The Strand — including The Ashley Lauren Foundation Theatre Ensemble’s production of Hairspray on July 14 and 15, and Elvis’ 40th Anniversary Spectacular starring Richie Santa on August 25 — please go to www.strand.org

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