We’ve heard it all before, from the late 60s when Hair first premiered to 30 years later when Rent took on the world of musical theatre, shook out all the corn as high as an elephant’s eye and rain in Spain, and beat all odds for enduring success. It might be overkill to state that yet another landmark Broadway-bred rock opus has once again revolutionized the state of the American musical, but if any production has managed to shake things up the ol’ terra firma once again, it has to be Spring Awakening, now in its west coast debut at the Ahmanson.
Ingeniously based on Frank Wedekind’s originally suppressed and once-scandalous late 19th-century play about the sexual coming of age of a group of typically curious teenagers getting a bit itchy as they try to exist within the authoritarian social constraints imposed upon them in their restrictive provincial German township in the 1890s, book and lyric writer Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have created perhaps the most important musical of the decade.
Without updating Wedekind’s original material much, thus leaving the horny kids of Spring Awakening puzzled by their own testosterone levels dressed in Susan Hifferty’s bleakly black high-necked Victorian-era costuming all ready to jump out of their skins under the repressive hold of their stiff-backed parents and educators, the musical quickly erupts from the standard theatrical format in its second scene, taking place in a strictly-run Latin class.
Featuring the blossoming boys of the town seated on austere wooden chairs suffering the wrath of a miserably Dickens-y schoolmaster (Henry Stram, who with Angela Reed skillfully play all the adults in the play), soon the cavernous Ahmanson stage explodes with the contagious energy and raucous volume of a rock concert with the spirited “The Bitch of Living.” Introducing Sheik’s remarkably infectious score at its most innovative as the boys pull hand microphones from the inner pockets of their period waistcoats and leap high in air to execute Bill T. Jones’ electric choreography, the scene signals an extraordinary evening to come.
Michael Mayer’s energetic visionary direction is exemplary throughout, beautifully guiding a knockout ensemble of uber-gifted young performers, some at their young age already veterans of the stage, some like castmember and recent high school graduate Sarah Hunt, making their professional stage debut with this groundbreaking production.
Christy Altomare and Kyle Riabko as Spring Awakening’s resident star-crossed lovers are both perfectly cast, particularly unforgettable in their haunting duet “The Word of Your Body,” but it is Blake Bashoff as doomed wanker Moritz who steals the show again and again, especially with his indelible turn in “Don’t Do Sadness.” And although there isn’t a poor performance in the pack here, from the talented ranks Andy Mientus and Ben Moss emerge late in Act Two to stop the show with their delightful gay-curious reprise of “The Word of Your Body.
The bottom line here, though, is this: as clever as is Sater’s conceit of taking an obscure European 120-year-old period piece and innovatively turning it into a resplendently relevant contemporary theatrical effort still able to blast the ill-conceived conduct of miserably unhappy adults trying to repress the human condition of their offspring in the name of religion and “common decency,” what truly makes Spring Awakening one for the ages is Sheik’s Grammy-winning and ingeniously evocative score—which soars to new heights with poignant ballads such as “Mama Who Bore Me” and sends the whole usually hugely austere house rocking with wonderfully youthful and boisterous energy in full production numbers like the aptly named “Totally Fucked.”
Everything about this first west coast look at Spring Awakening, which premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic before opening on Broadway the following year, subsequently receiving 11 Tony nominations and winning eight—including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score, and Featured Actor, as well as four Drama Desk including Outstanding Musical of 2007—is a major treat for local audiences. This one is one for the history books in so many ways, a production sure to send the genre of the American musical into glorious new directions.
Spring Awakening plays through Dec. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 323.628.2772. www.centertheatregroup.org