by Misha Berson on October 15, 2008
Blake Bashoff as Moritz in the touring cast of “Spring Awakening,” on stage at the Paramount through Sunday.
From “Mama Who Bore Me,” the plaintive, sweetly sung lament that opens the show, to the wild eruptions of thrashing angst in rockin’ stompers like “The Bitch of Living,” the musical “Spring Awakening” is an enthralling theatrical bash that ratchets the stakes of so-called youth musicals way, way up.
This bracingly sardonic, graphic and ultimately very moving show, winner of eight 2007 Tony Awards, arrives at the Paramount Theatre in a touring edition that is faithful to its hit Broadway production in all key respects.
And while not every teenager may be ready for its explicit sexuality (no nudity, but feigned masturbation and intercourse, and fervent homosexual kissing) or mature themes (the show is advised for patrons aged 13 and up), this is a work that gives voice to deep-seated feelings and concerns many adolescents share — and many adults know well, from their own youth or as parents.
Yet entirely apart from the show’s historically resonant portrayal of teen pregnancy, suicide and its plea for sex education, “Spring Awakening” is a dramatic event, and one exciting wake-up call.
Performed on a single set, in Brechtian fashion, with some patrons seated onstage among the cast, the show refreshed Broadway by turning a timeless tale of star-crossed adolescent yearning and rebellion into an urgent rave.
The touring cast is young, attractive and vocally blessed. Christy Altomare plays the naive, doe-eyed Wendla, a pretty young girl in a provincial 19th-century German town, whose hunger to learn more about her own biology is thwarted by the embarrassed rigidity of her elders — with tragic consequences.
Kyle Riabko is a compelling presence as her handsome love Melchior, a rash yet tender kid and intellectual rebel. And Blake Bashoff (familiar to viewers of TV’s “Lost”) vigorously portrays Mauritz, the story’s goofy, anguished clown prince — and its first victim of crushing social pressure.
The ensemble performance here — including Henry Stram and Angela Reed, as a slew of clueless adults — is virtually faultless.
But what gives “Spring Awakening” much of its essential force and uniqueness is author-lyricist Steven Sater’s artful blending of a provocative century-old drama (the expressionist 1891 play of the same title, by Frank Wedekind) with a century of inventive staging techniques (employed by director Michael Mayer), a thrilling postmodern movement scheme (choreographed by Bill T. Jones) and a potent indie-style musical score by pop singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik.
That all this meshing of style and substance feels organic — rather than stilted or forced — is a wonder. While the words the “Spring Awakening” characters speak and the clothes they wear (designed by Susan Hilferty) maintain the late-19th-century flavor of Wedekind’s universe, the music and movement provide a bold 21st-century counterpoint.
And that brick-wall set by Christine Jones, garnished with old paintings and photographs, is another smart accent — as is Kevin Adams’ lighting, with its washes of brilliant colors and delicate points of illumination.
The throng of German schoolkids here whip out cordless mics and sing to the accompaniment of a largely acoustic, onstage chamber orchestra that lends a rapturous flavor to such melodic odes as “Whispering” and “The Song of Purple Summer.” (The richly harmonized vocals on the choral numbers are especially lovely.)
But you’d be surprised how rollicking one guitar, a cello and a set of drums can get, pounding out such riotous rockers as “My Junk” and “The Bitch of Living.” Those songs are fantasized blasts of synchronized mayhem, with buttoned-up kids escaping the forced tedium of their existence in headbanging orgies of jumping, bashing, running, whirling, leaping and practically bursting out of their skins.
That unleashing of sheer, intoxicating young passion is a big part of the appeal of “Spring Awakening.” But so are its intelligence and candor. Romantic, but not overly sentimental, the show confronts the elemental adolescent despair and confusion — and the joy — that have not yet been vanquished by modernity, and perhaps never well be.