A unique blend of 19th century social repression and 21st century rock expression continues to work its alchemy in L.A.’s first look at long-running, multiple Tony-winning tuner “Spring Awakening.” Though the superb, fresh-faced company may push toward caricature in the first act, they come through in the second with a roundhouse emotional punch justly setting the first-night Ahmanson crowd on its feet in an appreciative roar.
Of course, there’s no way pre-World War I German adolescents, wrestling with adults’ bigotry and their own mystifying growing pains, should credibly wrest hand mics from breast pocket or smock and wail out their subtext to the driving rhythms of alternative rock.
That it works so often, and so movingly, is partly due to the truthfulness embedded in Frank Wedekind’s landmark 1891 “children’s tragedy” as freely adapted by Steven Sater. But mostly it’s attributable to rock’s capacity, through its catch-as-catch-can rhyming and extravagant metaphors, to give eloquent voice to inchoate, unarticulated desires.
Composer Duncan Sheik’s ravishing melodies consistently complement Sater’s ability to nail an emotion or state of being in a single, stunning lyrical image: “I don’t do sadness/So been there … Just don’t care” for a lad contemplating suicide; “O, I’m gonna be wounded … O, you’re gonna be my bruise” for a couple embarking on a romantic adventure to a scarily unknown destination.
Helmer Michael Mayer, whose invention and sensitivity rarely flag, indulges vaudeville horseplay as the students wickedly explore libido: too many head-snapping double takes; too much audience acknowledgment for easy laughs. (Playing all the grown-up roles, Henry Stram and Angela Reed are particularly over-the-top edgy, even when the adult in question should be nominally sympathetic.)
With his pigeon-toed gait, “Eraserhead” hair and bug-eyed curiosity, Blake Bashoff in particular seems ever poised to take goofy underachiever Moritz into cartoonland. Yet crowdpleaser Bashoff always pulls back from that brink, and once he’s persuaded of his L-for-loser identity a Sid Vicious rage sets our hair on end. (His, too; Grace Jones is doubtless wondering where her coiffure went.)
As burlesque gives way to dread, the story’s angelic center is in ideal hands. Kyle Riabko touches every base as the kids’ natural leader and self-styled philosopher, whose well-meaning efforts to dip his toe into adult sexuality lead to all-around misery. Christy Altomare avoids all cliche as the naive, virginal Wendla, desperate to “feel” — love, pain, something — and getting more than she bargained for.
Riabko and Altomare possess the standout voices and numbers, but overall company’s vocal and acting strengths easily equal and may surpass those of the Gotham originals. Particularly notable are Andy Mientus’ sinister mien right out of “Metropolis” as the pansexual Hanschen, and Steffi D’s free-spirited Ilsa, vainly offering poor Moritz one last lifeline.
Production elements create a hothouse environment in which pent-up yearnings are denied full release, from Christine Jones’ impossibly tall brick walls overwhelming the kids with olde-style family memorabilia (youth itself is hung up there on a shelf for a while), to Bill T. Jones’ choreography, psychologically based to evoke stomping and wriggling captive creatures in heat.
And one can’t say enough about Kevin Adams, whose lighting design owes more to the painter or sculptor’s art than to that of the f/x technician. Characters are lit like rock stars, but the illumination around them and on the wall — individual multicolored bulbs as well as neon strips — subtly reinforce and change moods to remind us this is life lived full, not a concert.
As young lovers are hoisted up on a platform while a cascade of blue descends, our bliss and theirs is fleeting but palpable — an unforgettable moment of transcendent theatrical magic.
A final shout-out to conductor Jared Stein, so clearly enjoying himself upstage at the keyboard it’s impossible to resist the invitation to rock out with him.