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04 December 2008

Theater Review: Spring Awakening

Disney’s High School Musical series has proven that the musical isn’t dead and it isn’t a genre that just attracts the middle-aged. Likewise, when Spring Awakening hit Broadway, winning Best Musical for 2007 and seven other Tony awards, it brought in a new wave of young theater goers.

With lyrics and book by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, this musical combines modern alternative music sensibilities with teenage angst and rebellion against adult authority. The topic isn’t new. Like the 1996 Rent! which was based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Bohéme, Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 German play of the same title, written by Frank Wedekind. If the topics of masturbation, abortion, rape and teen suicide are slightly controversial now, imagine what a uproar a play with those topics caused over a century ago.

Christine Jones’ set design is a brick wall with paintings, some that light up during the show. There’s a sense of the fantastical like the oversized half of a butterfly. A small raised stage area is where the action is centered. On both sides, cast and audience members mingle in school type bleachers. The musicians are on stage right.

The play begins with Wendla (Christy Altomare) asking her mother about sex in the sweetly melodic “Mama Who Bore Me” and her mother (Angela Reed who plays all the adult woman roles), too mortified to explicitly explain the dirty details, tells her she must simply love her husband with all her heart. The other girls seem similarly naïve, but the boys are a different matter.

The boys are seen dressed in uniforms at school under the watchful eye of their Latin teacher (Henry Stram who plays all the adult male roles). Yet their hairstyles easily identify them. The ill-fated Moritz (Blake Bashoff), seen clutching an old-fashioned mike in the publicity photos, has a frightful tumbleweed of expressive hair. His best friend, Melchior (Kyle Riabko), is a leader, but also a thinker. And what are the boys thinking about? What any teenage boy is thinking about: sex. Moritz’s sexual fantasies keep him from getting a good night’s sleep, resulting in his dismal performance at school (“The Bitch of Living”). Other boys are similarly preoccupied, including Georg (Matt Shingledecker) who is obsessed about his piano teacher’s breasts (“My Junk”) and Hanschen (Andy Mientus) who masturbates.

The first act ends with Moritz expelled from school despite passing his exams and Melchior and Wendla consummating their relationship in an infamous scene that includes partial male and female nudity. The second act begins with Wendla and Melchior considering the change in their relationship, but they are not fated for a happy ending due to the interference of parents and adult authority figures. Consider Melchior song “Totally Fucked.”

Riabko, a Canadian pop singer, played Melchior on Broadway before joining the touring show. Bashoff had a recurring role on the mysterious, convoluted Lostuntil he was killed off before assuming the role of Moritz on Broadway. Both are engaging with dynamic stage presence. Altomare’s Wendla is poignantly drawn as a girl in love who will never be a woman. The music is angry and yet, at times, hauntingly tender and the dance choreography by Bill T. Jones controlled chaos delivered with precision by this touring company.

This energetic, lively musical is well-worth seeing as a new development in musical theater and a way of recalling or, for the younger crowd, reveling in teenage angst. If your mind says yes, but your wallet says no, don’t despair. The Ahmanson has its own entertainment stimulus package of $20 tickets available for each performance.

Spring Awakening continues until Dec. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information call (213) 628 2772.

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