San Francisco Chronicle

‘Spring Awakening’

by Robert Hurwitt on September 9, 2008

A young teen croons plaintively about the wonders of her blossoming body as she dresses for school. Her schoolmates rock the song into an intense chorus of frustration. A classroom of ramrod-stiff boys erupts from their desks in Bill T. Jones’ explosive choreography to the dynamic rhythms emanating from musical director Jared Stein’s onstage band.

Sexual urgency, frustration, confusion, rebellion, despair and rampaging hormones electrify the Curran Theatre in Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s “Spring Awakening,” which opened its national tour Sunday in the Best of Broadway series. The cast is young, engaging and intensely committed. Jolts of neon animate the teens’ repressed lives in Michael Mayer’s intense stagings.

The febrile passions slip into forced sentiment at times, particularly in an awkwardly appended finale. But most of “Spring” bursts with an energy that makes Frank Wedekind’s strange 1891 drama of sexual repression immediate and compelling.

Sater and Sheik’s stroke of genius is to infuse the long-banned teen-sex play with the propulsive force of rock – not by setting the text to contemporary pop but by using songs to express the universality of adolescent emotional and intellectual chaos.

Sater’s book follows the play fairly faithfully, through the young intellectual Melchior’s ill-fated romance with a knowledge-hungry Wendla and the painful angst of his suicidal best friend, Moritz. That helps to ground the teens’ tragedies in their repressive, 19th century German village milieu.

Sater maintains some of the original shock value by making more explicit its implications of masturbation, wet dreams, incestuous abuse and homoeroticism. But what propels the story into the here and now are the songs he and Sheik use to embody the teens’ inner lives – whether it’s the magnetic Christy Altomare’s Wendla crooning of sexual ignorance or fulfillment or the full cast erupting from outward obedience to connect with their inner angry teens in a rock-out “The Bitch of Living.”

As potent as most of the songs are, though, they only express moods. None contribute to the development of the plot or the characters’ ideas, most of which are given short shrift in Sater’s adaptation, making the teens and their problems verge on the generic at times. Still, it’s easy to see why “Spring” has excited audiences since it opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in ’06 and won eight Tony awards.

Christine Jones’ set evokes institutional repression by re-creating the dour brick walls of the Atlantic’s former church-hall stage. Actors in Susan Hilferty’s straitlaced costumes emerge from the small audience seated onstage, mimicking the emergence of the principal stories from the storm of child-adult frustration.
A sweet-voiced Kyle Riabko is a charismatic Melchior, the conflicted, intellectually adventurous boy whose romance with Wendla provides some of the most deeply affecting dramatic and musical moments. Blake Bashoff brings a rich, full voice to the fatally hapless Moritz, even if he seems to try too hard to channel Mick Jagger. Angela Reed and Henry Stram as all the adults, Steffi D as the wistful Ilse and Andy Mientus as a frighteningly intense Hanschen are also outstanding.

The energy flags at times in the second act, and some key plot developments are too rushed. The biggest letdown, though, comes at the end, when Sater and Sheik lose faith in Wedekind and attempt to impose a kind of “Circle of Life” feel-good closer. Ignore it. Most of the rest of “Spring” is a musically rich, vital and brightly performed awakening.

Spring Awakening: Musical. Book and lyrics by Steven Sater, adapted from the play by Frank Wedekind. Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Michael Mayer. With Kyle Riabko, Christy Altomare, Blake Bashoff, Angela Reed, Henry Stram, Steffi D et al. (Through Oct. 12. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Two hours, 20 minutes. Tickets $30-$99. Call (415) 512-7770 or go to

Spring Awakening
Spring Awakening
Blake Bashoff (left) and Kyle Riabko play young German teens. (Katy Raddatz / The Chronicle)

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