Whether its pro-sex (and sex education) gist will prove persuasive to heartland audiences remains an open question, but the launch of the touring edition of “Spring Awakening” in San Francisco certainly finds both production and audience on terra firma. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation of the Frank Wedekind drama about raging teen hormones and strangling adult hypocrises retains its unlikely crowdpleasing dynamism in a production that hews closely to Michael Mayer’s Broadway staging.
The key element lay in finding a new classroom of scrubbed youthful performers with angelic voices to fill their predecessors’ shoes on the road. There are no complaints about this lot, led by Kyle Riabko as freethinking student Melchior, Christy Altomare as ill-fated ingenue Wendla, and Blake Bashoff as tormented Moritz.
Both males replaced their roles’ originators on Broadway while Altomare comes straight out of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. But all equally deliver a fresh dose of the antsy, conflicted passions Mayer and company stoke to borderline excessive kinetic degrees. (Henry Stram and Angela Reed get the blunt end of Sater’s sometimes caricatured take on Wedekind as the two venomous teachers, though not all their multicast adult parts are quite so one-dimensional.)
Perhaps even more importantly in a show much graced by AnnMarie Milazzo’s exquisite vocal arrangements, these actors sound winning individually and gorgeous as an ensemble.
Longtime collaborators Sheik and Sater have always excelled more at delicate, melancholy minor-key atmospherics rather than standalone songwriting. But the monotony that might be exposed in the “Spring Awakening” score in less flattering circumstances is well buried under those exultant harmonies, keening strings and rustling acoustic guitar chords.
While the most audience-rousing numbers remain fist-pumping rebel yells like “The Bitch of Living” and especially “Totally Fucked,” the most melodically and vocally stirring moments here are beautifully sung quiet ones: Wendla and Melchior’s duets “I Believe” (pre-coital) and “The Guilty Ones” (post), as well as Steffi D’s lament as Ilsa, “Blue Wind.”
There are still aspects to quibble with in the chief collaborators’ sometimes self-conscious mix of Victoriana and modern anachronisms, particularly when Bill T. Jones’ choreography gets a little too vogue-y. The show works more as a series of episodes than a flowing narrative, more unevenly so after intermission; admittedly, Wedekind wasn’t a world-class champion of subtly nuanced story development, either. But at times this “Spring” seems to be yanking us toward one emotional high point after another rather than building naturally toward them.
Nonetheless, the whole does work, with the Broadway edition’s fine design contributions fortunately intact –none more welcome than Kevin Adams’ superb lighting, which often fills a stage otherwise committed to some semblance of concert-style minimalism.
Sound design achieves a crystalline balance between the hand-miked thesps and music director Jared Stein’s stage-rear band of seven.