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Auds ‘Spring’ for intimate stage time

Critic's Notebook

“Spring Awakening” may still be working to cement its Broadway audience, but at least one group of the production’s seats are regularly hard to come by: the ones onstage.

With its tale of adolescent angst and its rock tunes by indie-popster Duncan Sheik, “Awakening” aims to tap a young demo with a nightly allocation of twenty-five $30 seats that, like the $20 lottery tickets to “Rent,” offer a lower-priced alternative to youthful hipsters for whom a $110 ticket is generally too steep.

It’s helping to build a devoted fan base. “The onstage seats are booked pretty well in advance,” says producer Ira Pittelman. “Sometimes I talk to people sitting there, and they tell me it’s their fifth time seeing the show.”

This reporter braved the stage at a recent performance, joining the mostly young-skewing crowd (and one cool mom) in watching the show at close range. The experience proves a different but complementary one to seeing it from the house. What’s lost of the big picture is made up in intimacy and urgency.

“Spring Awakening” finds itself confronted with a difficult balancing act: The tuner’s rebellious-teen appeal is certainly one of its selling points, but it can’t be played up so much as to alienate the more traditional (read: older) theatergoers willing and able to pay higher ticket prices.

Ads highlighting rapturous quotes from major Gotham critics are pitching the show to that demo. Grosses were underwhelming when the Broadway run opened in December, but these days the production has been selling between 70% and 80% of capacity during the traditionally slow winter weeks of January.

The connection with young adults is being forged with spots on pop radio Z100, student campaigns at Columbia U. and NYU, a Web site with downloadable videos and an MTV News segment about the show which, according to Pittelman, ran 40 or 50 times. “They’re talking about us on MySpace and the chat rooms,” the producer adds.

Low price is definitely a draw for a large part of the show’s aud. Pittelman reports that “Awakening” got a particularly strong response with the Broadway-wide seasonal discount program, Season of Savings. The onstage seats allow the show to offer lower prices year-round.

There were logistics to tackle in getting patrons up on the boards. Each onstage seat has a corresponding locker in a hall outside the house, where the aud must stow coats, bags and cell phones. There’ll be no distracting, desultory flipping through the program: Playbills are handed out after the show.

And try to dial down the perfume. Thesp Christine Estabrook, one of the two adult characters in the cast, is allergic, and sometimes overly fragrant audience members are asked to move.

From an artistic perspective, there are disadvantages to sitting onstage. The position of the seats, arranged in a total of five rows stage right and stage left, means theatergoers watch from off to the side and mostly behind the performers. The sound mix isn’t ideal, with the acoustics muffling some of the lyrics. And the power of the production’s stage pictures — particularly Kevin Adams’ potent lighting and the angular richness of Bill T. Jones’ choreography — gets mostly lost from the odd vantage point.

But there in the midst of the action, the dynamism of helmer Michael Mayer’s staging becomes far more striking, and the energy of the performers spills over. When the schoolboys stomp their feet during “The Bitch of Living,” or the entire cast explodes in the frenzy of “Totally Fucked,” you feel the stage shake beneath you.

The proximity also reveals new subtleties in the acting. The doomed optimism of poor abused Martha (Lilli Cooper) hits home more affectingly when she’s seen face-on in an exchange viewed in profile from the house. And Estabrook’s performance gains impressive new character fillips and emotional layers when seen in closeup.

All that ensures that “Awakening” remains compelling and satisfying from the stage. And yes, that includes the graphic sex scene between Melchior (Jonathan Groff) and Wendla (Lea Michele).

For the record, I sat on stage left, which is the ass side, not the breasts side. And you should be ashamed of yourself for wondering.

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