Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening has awakened once again, this time as a showcase for a group of very talented, mostly college-age performers and a director whose vision has already impressed this reviewer on more than one occasion.

 A musical adaptation of an 1891 drama by German playwright Frank Wedenkind, one which broke plenty of ground indeed with its depiction of on-and/or-offstage masturbation, child abuse, bondage, rape, abortion, and suicide among 14-year-olds just now awakening to their sexuality, Spring Awakening The Musical won eight 2006 Tonys including Best Musical, Book, and Score.

Sater’s book follows Wedekind’s basic storylines. There are its two teen heroes, the handsome, popular, self-confident Melchior (Keaton Williams) and his introverted, inhibited, wet-dream-plagued classmate Moritz (Christopher W. Hamby), and its heroine, the all-too-innocent but no less sexually inquisitive girl-next-door Wendla (Chelsea Baldree). There are also Melchior and Moritz’s ever-horny classmates and Wendla’s equally randy girlfriends. A pair of older actors stand in for all the adults in these teens’ lives.

What made Spring Awakening work so brilliantly on Broadway was not merely Sater’s streamlining of Wedekind’s melodramatic plot threads. Singer-songwriter-pop star Sheik’s catchy alternative rock score and Bill T. Jones’ brilliantly innovative choreography together turned Spring Awakening into a mainstream (and cult) international phenomenon.

Spring Awakening begins on a quiet note, with sexually burgeoning Wendla wondering if she’ll ever be told the truth about man-woman relations in “Mama Who Bore Me,” followed by an amusing sequence in which her highly embarrassed mother avoids the question entirely, an omission which proves ultimately disastrous. The song then takes on a rock beat as Wendla’s girlfriends join her in a reprise, one which took Broadway audiences by excited surprise when these late 19th Century teens suddenly pulled out hidden hand mikes, transforming themselves, albeit only for the length of each song, into 21st Century rockers.

Director/choreographer Kari Hayter eschews those revolutionary mikes for a more naturalistic approach on the stage of Cal Stage Dominguez Hills’ Main Stage Theatre, an approach which focuses more on character-based performances than on rock pyrotechnics.

Still, Spring Awakening without mikes (or rock concert lighting or audience members seated onstage alongside incognito ensemble performers) is a risky new approach. Lyrics like “My Junk”’s “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on… Shoot up some you in the you of some song,” seem as out of place in the 1890s as do the hard rock beats of “Totally Fucked” and “The Bitch Of Living” without those electronic “magic wands” to make these kids simultaneously 19th and 21st Century beings.

That being said, this more naturalistic Spring Awakening does have its own rewards, particularly with a director equally experienced at helming straight plays as she is at directing musicals. Hayter’s Spring Awakening is more about making the characters real, three-dimensional teens than in the Broadway original, even in choreographed numbers where dance moves, while inspired by Jones’s cutting edge original stomps and back kicks and leaps and jumps, seem more individually tailored to each character.

 There are no weak links in the cast assembled for this student production. Williams sings and acts Melchior with honesty, sweetness, and first rate vocal chops. Baldree vanishes inside Wendla’s quiet, repressed, longing-to-flower skin and sings angelically. Hamby brings a young John Belushi quality to his highly individual interpretation of Moritz in addition to delivering power vocals.

 Among the female contingent, Janelle Vionne Kestler is a standout as lost-girl Ilse, duetting a powerful “The Dark I Know Well” opposite Analise Castellanos’ powerful work as victim/survivor Marthe. In addition to Katelyn O’Neill’s Thea and Courtney King’s Anna, Hayter adds a trio of school girls (Natalia Balestra, Martina Mathis, Rebecca Muli) to the mix, and all are excellent.

 The supporting schoolboys are terrific too, from Jacob Thomson’s endearing piano-obsessed Georg to Danny Marin’s dynamic mother-fixated Otto to Nick Adorno’s sexy bisexual Hanschen to Zack Crocker’s adorable Hanschen-obsessed Ernst.

A pair of over-29-year-olds,  Rob Kaufman and Naomi Buckley, provide strong adult support in a variety of clearly differentiated roles, including various parents, teachers and assorted grownups.

Musical director Bobby Nafarrete gets the entire cast singing in beautiful harmonies, along with conducting the production’s excellent seven-piece pit orchestra, playing keyboard alongside Nick Kirgo’s guitar, Carlos Rivera Jr.’s bass, Dustin Johnson’s drums, Anthony Chuy’s percussion, Hope Easton’s cello, and Tom McEvilley’s violin and guitar.

 Stewart Christie’s lighting design is an effective one, particularly in its use of color, though far less flashy than the original Broadway designer’s concept.  A bridge arches over the raised center stage area in Matt Scarpino’s well thought-out scenic design, one which Hayter uses quite imaginatively throughout the production. Carin Jacobs’ costumes have a nice period feel as seen through a contemporary lens, and the same can be said about her hair and makeup designs.

Far more problematic is Tom Marinello’s sound design, though this may be more the fault of the venue than the designer. The Main Stage Theatre’s cavernous stage area seems to suck up sound, particularly when there’s mostly empty space between the proscenium arch and far-upstage scrim. Amplification is uneven as well. (As an example, Williams’ mike was too strident, Thomson’s far too low in volume.) Having seen several productions of Spring Awakening and listened to the Original Broadway Cast recording umpteen times, I was able to grasp dialog and lyrics pretty much throughout. I’m not so sure anyone unexposed to Spring Awakening would have been as fortunate.

Behind the scenes is a hard-working team headed by production manager Naomi Buckley, stage manager Joseph Paul Hill, and assistant stage managers Daniel Fernandez and Ruben Morales.

 Though the mikes are missed, with material as strong as Sater and Sheik’s, a director-choreographer as gifted as Hayter, a cast of performers as multi-talented as these,  a first-rate orchestra, and some excellent design elements, this Spring Awakening is one well worth seeing.  Haste is of the essence however. Its brief six-performance run ends Sunday.

Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, 1000 E Victoria St, Carson.

–Steven Stanley
May 3, 2012

Photos: Defiant, The Lion Design//Photography

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