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Spring Awakening at Center Stage


Monday, April 23, 2012

The musical Spring Awakening, currently enjoying a ferocious yet sensitive staging from Out of the Box at Center Stage Theater, is full of shockingly frank scenes. But it’s a moment of naïveté that stands out for me. When a central character learns that his friend’s abusive father is beating her regularly, he replies, with as much puzzlement as concern: “That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”

One can understand his shock; it is, after all, the 1890s. But as it gradually dawns on the characters in this often-astonishing show, repressing uncomfortable emotions isn’t the same thing as banishing bad behavior. One, in fact, often leads to the other.

Child-abuse scandals such as the recent one at Penn State suggest that, more than a century later, this lesson has yet to sink in. But we are, at least, more open about discussing such issues than we once were. That’s thanks in part to a group of courageous late-19th-century playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Frank Wedekind, who dared to confront audiences with subjects they would rather avoid.

Like his other masterpiece, Lulu (which was turned into an opera by Alban Berg), Wedekind’s Spring Awakening is today best known as the basis of a brilliant musical-theater adaptation. With music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, it opened on Broadway in 2006 and ultimately won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

The creators made a gutsy choice: They present the play pretty much as written (keeping the action in the late 1800s), but the characters — confused, conflicted German teenagers who are ill-equipped by their repressive society to deal with their raging hormones — regularly whip out microphones and express their feelings by singing rock-influenced songs. Against all odds, the combination works: The issues the play raises continue to resonate, and the score is an expressive mix of beauty and raw power.

The Out of the Box Theatre Company is giving the work its Santa Barbara premiere (through Apr. 29 at Center Stage), and these gutsy young artists do it justice. Samantha Eve’s production, a major advance from her hit-or-miss staging of Sondheim’s Assassins, is fluid, energetic, well-paced, and appropriately in-your-face. Eve doesn’t tone anything down (if this were a film, it’d definitely be rated R), but she deftly avoids exploitation.

The cast is quite strong. Quinlan Fitzgerald, who has a magnificent singing voice, brings a touching vulnerability to the central role of Wendla (created on Broadway by Lea Michele). William Schneiderman and Daniel Russell nicely embody the close friends Melchior and Moritz — one the school brain, the other a misfit. The five-piece band, under the direction of Mandee Sikich, expertly performs the superb score.

The staging is by no means as polished as the touring show that played the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles a few years back. But with this material, polish isn’t necessarily a plus. The Out of the Box production conveys the sense that these characters — a group of earnest, anguished kids — tell us their story because they feel an urgent need to do so. Forced to navigate a bewildering world of strict, unfeeling parents and discipline-obsessed teachers, they need someone to listen and understand. Granting them their wish is very much our pleasure.

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