Spring Awakening, the 2006 Tony winner for Best Musical, is back in town, an event that would be considerably less newsworthy were it not for the memorable directorial debut it provides recent UCLA grad Michael Kozachenko and the musical theater showcase it offers its talented young cast, most of whom are new to L.A. stages.
Since its Broadway debut nine years ago, the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1906 drama Frühlings Erwachen has become to musical theater-majoring Millennials what Rent was to their Generation X counterparts.
Unlike the family-friendly musicals (e.g. Seussical, Grease, and Footloose) that they starred in in high school, Spring Awakening dares to tackle such edgy topics as child abuse, S&M, incest, abortion, and suicide among 14-year-olds just now awakening to their sexuality.
No wonder then that director Kozachenko had his pick of triple-threats when casting this 99-seat staging.
Garett Ross, Lauren Shippen, and Jon Ash share star billing as Spring Awakening’s teen protagonists—the handsome, popular, self-confident Melchior, the all-too-innocent but sexually inquisitive girl-next-door Wendla, and the introverted, inhibited, wet-dream-plagued Moritz—sharing the stage with a fresh bunch of L.A. theater newbies as Melchi and Moritz’s ever-horny classmates and Wendla’s equally randy girlfriends.
A number of factors combined nearly a decade ago to make Spring Awakening work so brilliantly on Broadway. Sater’s streamlining of Wedekind’s melodramatic storylines, singer-songwriter-pop star Sheik’s catchy alternative rock score, the likes of which had probably never before been heard on a Broadway stage, and Bill T. Jones’ brilliantly innovative choreography together turned Spring Awakening into a mainstream (and cult) international phenomenon.
The show begins quietly, with sexually burgeoning Wendla wondering if she’ll ever be told the truth about man-woman relations in “Mama Who Bore Me,” followed by a deliciously funny 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, leading us to Melchior and Moritz in Latin class, the former attempting to rescue the latter from the ire of their monster of a teacher when the burning need to express what’s going on inside their minds and bodies suddenly erupts into the first rock-concert chords of “The Bitch Of Living.”
Spring Awakening’s other big showstopper is Act Two’s “Totally Fucked,” revealing the teens’ raging desires, their unfulfilled sexual wants, and their dissatisfaction with the world around them.
Spring Awakening’s quieter moments feature some of Sheik and lyricist Sater’s best compositions. The Pink Floyd-esque “Touch Me,” in which the youthful cast of characters express their desire for intimate physical contact; the anthem-like “I Believe,” which sets the stage for Melchior and Wendla’s lovemaking; and the heartbreaking “Left Behind,” sung at a funeral for one of the teens are just three among many such songs.
Without these musical numbers, Spring Awakening would simply be an abbreviated version of a dated German play. With them, it becomes something both extraordinary and contemporary, as if 21st-century souls were inhabiting these long-deceased youths.
Melchior, Wendla, and Moritz may have been born in the 1870s, but their dilemmas (like the consequences of Wendla’s insufficient sexual education) still ring true in 2015, which is why there’s nothing at all dated about Sheik and Sater’s musical.
Unlike Spring Awakening’s first regional stagings, which adhered closely to the production’s original directorial and design concepts, Kozachenko’s vision is refreshingly his own, from the abstract woods of May Mitchell’s imaginatively used multi-level scenic design, to the emphasis on character and storytelling over Broadway pizzazz.
Kozachenko substitutes simpler though still dramatic musical staging for the flashy choreography featured in most Spring Awakenings since Bill T. Jones won the Tony for his distinctive stomps and back kicks and leaps and jumps, and the production does suffer somewhat from their absence.
This is just one of the high points of the director’s stunning lighting design, subtly realistic in dialog sequences and ballads, rock concert-flashy whenever 21st-century electric guitar licks and drum beats take over its characters bodies and souls. The Broadway original used hand mikes (and famously so) to signal this transition. Here lighting achieves the same goal.
Attention has clearly been paid to creating believable teen characters, with not a single “phoned-in” performance amongst the mostly fresh-out-of-school bunch, details evident even in full-cast production numbers that reveal the pain and confusion of their transition from innocent child to sexual adult.
Romantic leads Ross and Shippen combine teen idol looks, topnotch vocals, and believable acting to make for a striking couple of young lovers, while Ash burns up the stage as the tormented Moritz, a role he was born to play.
Though it didn’t really work for me to have Moritz and teen runaway Isle play their scene facing the audience and not each other, Monica Ricketts’ powerful voice makes her gorgeous solos in “The Dark I Know Well” and “The Song Of Purple Summer” standouts.
Another vocal standout is Bryce Charles as Martha, with Bethany Baderdeen and Amanda Hootman providing strong support as Thea and Anna.
Most memorable among the featured teens are Devlin Andrews as the seductive, sexually fluid Hanschen and Gino Lee as Ernst, the virginal object of his affection, no longer the gay-mocking comic relief they were on Broadway but simply two boys in love, and deeply, affectingly so. (Kudos to Kozachenko for an added Hanschen-Ernst bit during “The Song Of Purple Summer,” and though the duo’s singing voices are exquisite, dialog volume bears pumping up in their love scene.)
Stage vets Bradley Kuykendall and Melissa Strauss bring to entertaining life each and every adult character, with special snaps for a Headmaster Knochenbruch and a Fräulein Knuppeldick straight out of Dickens.
Spring Awakening NoHo features a full eight-piece orchestra* under Doug Appleoff’s expert musical direction, additional proof of the production’s high aims, with sound designer Julia Pinhey providing an expert mix of instrumentals and amped vocals.
Justin Ryan Brown is stage manager. Noopur Anagol is assistant stage manager.
Michael Kozachenko ends his program bio with the words, “This is just the beginning. He is only getting started.” With Spring Awakening, the Bay Area native is off to a bang-up start.
*Appelhoff (piano), Richard Adkins (violin), Lavette Allen (viola), Rachel Coosaia (cello), Gabe Gonzales (guitar), Wayne Hildenbrand (drums), Andy Moresi (harmonium/guitar), and Jeff Takiguchi (bass)
NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
August 30, 2015