Spring Awakening

What’s a nice play like you doing in a barn like this? The spectacle here is bewitching and too large for Frank Wedekind’s turn-of-last-century story of teenage angst, from which Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s touring Broadway-hit musical has been crafted. I found myself more dazzled than moved, but dazzle can be a good thing, and the production is too ornate an accomplishment to be ignored. There’s never a dull moment in Michael Mayer’s staging, but rarely is there a soulful moment. The story is about social and sexual repression in puritanical Germany, and it arrives here as bloated in style as a rock concert. Lighting designer Kevin Adams provides exactly that ambiance with a plot that flips from washes of lurid red to purple with the stomp of 10 boots, and lighting instruments that float down along the back wall from the rafters, creating the effect of some cosmic galaxy. Bill T. Jones’ choreography looms just as large, with, in one song, the company stomping feet in unison, as though they were performing Butoh dance in order to arouse the spirits of the dead. Onstage, and in onstage bleachers, where members of the company are planted amidst the audience, heads gyrate to and fro, as if possessed by demons, which is exactly how the Teutonic society depicted here is trying to make them feel. The paradox is that the sneering Expressionism mingles with the mechanical robotics to such an extent — clearly to reach a house considerably larger than in New York — that the story’s underlying sensitivities are tempered, if not eviscerated. One powerful scene that gets short shrift here is that between teen Melchior (Kyle Riabko) and his peer/lover Wendla (Christy Altomare), out in the country. She goads him to beat her, even playfully, with a switch — because she’s sexually aroused by the brutal daily beatings inflicted on her friend, Martha (Sarah Hunt). The scene itself contains disturbing and deeply human revelations about suppressed sadism and masochism, which here are treated as broadly and swiftly as in a burlesque, depriving the scene of its core sensuality. Still, the creators and designers are accomplishing exactly what they want, as the cast is precision-perfect. Moreover, the overinflated scale and hyperactive style of this touring production can’t diminish the powerful beauty of Sheik’s music and Sater’s lyrics. There’s scant melody but ample musical motifs that float on intricate, poetical phrases and sophisticated orchestral support, as though from the Suzanne Vega era. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sat., 1 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (no perf Wed., Nov. 5 or Thurs., Nov. 27; no eve perf Sun., Dec. 7; added perf Mon., Nov. 24, 8 p.m. and Thurs., Dec. 4, 2 p.m.); through Dec. 7. (213) 628-2772.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 30. Continues through Dec. 7, 2008


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