Spring Awakening, a co-production with Theater Latté Da and The University of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts and Dance

David Darrow and Company in Spring Awakening. Photo by Michal Daniel.

I’m often asked, in my exalted position as theater reviewer, if I’ve seen anything really good.  I hem and haw.  “This play at the Guthrie’s not bad, and that play at CTC is terrific if you’re seven years old, and Ten Thousand Things is great, but of course there’s no stage lighting.”  But here’s a play that rings all my bells: Spring Awakening.  Terrific story, excellent book, tasty music, superb direction, boffo performances.  Here’s one I can brag about.

Spring Awakening is a co-production between Theater Latté Da and the University of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.  The talented and energetic U students have the privilege of working with a first rate director (the marvelous Peter Rothstein) and a hyper-gifted music director (Denise Prosek), on a sexy and deservedly popular theatrical tour-de-force.  Latté Da, for its part, gets to work in a pretty-good playing space (Rarig’s Stoll Thrust) with excellent tech support.  In addition, the theater can cast students in supernumerary roles, thus freeing the theater from the curse of small-cast “chamber-theater.”  This show has theater-filling presence and satisfying size.  Win-win.

Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the bleak and nasty play of the same title, written in 1891 by Franz Wedekind.  Wedekind’s play still packs a punch.  Adolescents, faced with shrill and unmovable social rigidity and clueless and remote adults, act out horrifically.  They masturbate, rape, slash at each other with switches (desperate to feel something, anything), commit suicide.  Desperate alliances form: Wendla and Melchior, Hanschen and Ernst.

Playwright/lyricist Steven Sater softens this story somewhat.  A rape becomes, in Sater’s musical, lovemaking.  Sater’s ending (which, needless to say, I’m not going to reveal) is more hopeful.  Still, to his great credit, Sater honors Wedekind original and this gives the play edge and makes it compulsively watchable.

There is another crucial difference: these young people sing.  This transforms the story.  Musically empowered, these characters fight back.  They transcend meek victimhood.  They have energy, spirit – and this is why this piece has become so popular among young audiences.  That composer Duncan Sheik has created a luscious contemporary rock score helps enormously: “The Bitch Of Living,” “Totally Fucked,” “The Word Of Your Body,” et al, all brilliant.  The 21st century music marries perfectly with the arch 19th century script.

Peter Rothstein is one of the premiere directors of musical theater in the country and I live in terror that an evil Broadway producer will swoop down and snatch him away from us.  His work on Spring Awakening is perfect: angular and over-the-top when it needs to be (his staging of “Totally Fucked” is gorgeous); sweet and simple when the play requires it.  He uses the Stoll Thrust with gymnastic abandon.  He has also had the good sense to hire the always wonderful musician Denise Prosek and the excellent choreographer Carl Flink.

As to the cast, wow.  I lack the space here to wax enthusiastic about everyone, but I have to mention Cat Brindisi who effectively combines the ineffably unformed sweetness of youth with solid technical choppage.  She gives a terrific performance, and so does the wiry and passionate David Darrow as Melchior.  I greatly enjoyed the edgy work of Grant Sorenson and Larissa Gritti.  The two adults, Michelle Barber and James Detmar, perform their multiple roles with cartoonish perfection.  I have to stop.  Everyone is wonderful.

Spring Awakening closes May 6.  My firm advice: call the box office asap and make reservations.  U of M students get a discount and this is a young person’s show.  Tickets will go fast and I don’t want you to miss this one.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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