Ingeniously based on Frank Wedekind’s originally suppressed and once-scandalous late 19th-century play, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation of Wedekind’s notorious Spring Awakening, then-shockingly dealing with 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, is without a doubt one of the most important musicals of the decade, one for the history books in so many ways.
Everything about Spring Awakening, which premiered off-Broadway in 2006 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 and sure to send the genre of the American musical into glorious new directions.
In its second showing in Lost Angeles for a mere six performances at the Pantages after wowing us all at the Ahmanson in 2008—winning my top TicketHolder Award honors as the Best Musical and Best Score that season—this return to LaLaLand is again hits one out of the ballpark—or in this case directly out onto Hollywood Boulevard and possibly making guests turning in early at the W Hotel sit up in bed and ask, “What the hell was that?” There is not one ounce of roadshow-itis on exhibit here as the energetic and uniquely dynamic touring company recreates the production gloriously.
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 (Mark Poppleton, who alongside Sarah Kleeman skillfully play all the adults in the play), soon the often too-cavernous Pantages stage explodes with the contagious energy and raucous volume of a rock concert. This combustive scene signals an extraordinary evening to come 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, respectfully recreated for the national tour by JoAnn M. Walker.
Michael Mayer’s energetic visionary direction, here recreated by Lucy Skilbeck, is exemplary throughout, beautifully guiding a knockout ensemble of uber-gifted young performers, particularly furthering the wonder of the remarkable Coby Getzug, an 18-year-old graduate of the Los Angeles High School of the Arts whose local professional debut performance a few months ago in The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Taper send critics shouting his praises all over town.
Elizabeth Judd and Christopher Wood as Spring Awakening’s resident star-crossed lovers are both perfectly cast and spectacularly voiced, particularly unforgettable in their haunting duet “The Word of Your Body,” but it is Getzug as poor doomed 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 Devon Stone is a major standout as Hanschen, first in Act One tunefully discovering the pleasures of masturbation and then emerging again late in Act Two with Daniel Plimpton 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 book writer/lyricist Sater’s concept 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 the haunting bleak “The Dark I Know Well,” then manages to send the whole usually hugely austere house rocking with wonderfully youthful and boisterous energy in full production numbers like the aptly named “Totally Fucked.”
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’s Spring Awakening.
SPRING AWAKENING plays only through Feb. 13 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; for tickets, call 800.982.ARTS or log on at www.BroadwayLA.org