Teen Angst, On Stage

Being a teen is hard. All those emotions coursing through you. All these changes you don’t understand. Your parents don’t understand you. Your body is doing strange things. No matter what you do, you seem to fuck it up. But you can always sing about it.

That seems to be the central idea of “Spring Awakening, the musical we saw last night at the Ahamanson Theatre. “Spring Awakening” was originally written as a play (Frühlings Erwachen) in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. It was rarely performed because of its controversial nature. The story concerns a bunch of German teens coming into their sexuality. There are three principle characters: Melchior Gabor (Kyle Riabko) is handsome, 14 years old, an atheist and rebel, and knows about sex. Wendla Bergmann (Christy Altomare) is a 14 year old girl who knows nothing about where babies come from, other than what her mother has told her — you love your husband very much. Moritz Stiefel (Blake Bashoff) is confused about his sexual awakening, a poor student, and in many ways a lost soul. The other characters are primarily the schoolmates and friends of these three: Ilse (Steffi D), a carefree spirit who ran away from home; Thea (Kimiko Glenn), Anna (Gabrielle Garza), and Martha (Sarah Hunt), childhood friends of Wendela, the latter being subjected to physical abuse at home; Hänschen (Andy Mientus) & Ernst (Ben Moss), two classmates of Mechior who are discovering they are gay; and Otto (Anthony Lee Medina) and Georg (Matt Shingledecker), two classmates of Mechior.

The story begins with Wendela asking her mother where babies come from. Her mother (all of the adult women were played by Angela Reed) can’t bring herself to tell her, and simply says you need to love her huband. We’re then introduced to the boys school where we meet Moritz (who is having trouble), and Mechior, his best friend. Mechior helps him not only in school, but writes a 10 page illustrated essay about sex. But Moritz is borderline, is disliked by the administrators (all male adult roles are played by Henry Stram), who conspire to fail him. Meanwhile, Melchior and Wendela start to fall for each other. By the end of the first act, Moritz is expelled, and Mechior and Wendela are having a tryst in a hayloft. The results of this come back to bite them in the second act. I don’t want to spoil everything (you can read the full synopsis at Wikipedia), but let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

What makes “Spring Awakening” unique is its staging, under the direction of Michael Mayer. In the midst of this old German story (and they keep it in that period), modern microphones come out and the adolescent actors sing strong rock songs and ballads that reflect the inner turmoil and angst of their characters. These are remarkable strong strong songs (lyrics by Steven Sater, who also adapted the book; music by Duncan Sheik) that convey raw emotion (just look at the titles: “Totally Fucked”, “The Bitch of Living”). The set (designed by Christine Jones) is this big open box (with audience seating on the sides) — but it too is raw, with no real scenery or props, other than the occasional chair. The lighting too is raw (lighting design by Kevin Adams): moving lights, raw blue florescents hanging by wires, red orange and yellow florescent tubes, on stage and behind, with only an occasional spot from the front. The sound (designed by Brian Ronan) is equally raw and pulsing. In fact, if you had to characterize this show in two words, it would be raw angst. It comes at you, it screams at you, and it leaves you limp and applauding at the end.

I’ve mentioned the names of the actors above (others in the ensemble were Julie Benko, Perry Sherman, Claire Sparks, and Lucas A. Wells) and I want to single a few out for specific mention. Christy Altomare as Wendla had a remarkable voice, but I was more touched by her vulnerability, especially in the scenes with Mechior. Her confusion about sex and her wonderment came across when she and Mechior tentatively started to make love. Kyle Riabko was equally strong as Mechior, being both touching and the rebel — and an extremely strong singer. As for Blake Bashoff as Moritz, he exhibited that confusion and outcast geekiness that many of us were all too familiar with. My other favorites had smaller roles. Steffi D as Ilse was remarkable in her last scene with Moritz — she had a strong singing voice and was just touching. I also loved the raw emotion of Kimiko Glenn — in a role with no major lines, she just gave it her all, pouring her soul into her music and acting. Hauntingly beautiful.

Let’s turn to some of the other technical credits, not mentioned, starting surprisingly with the stage managers, Eric Sprosty, Alison Harma, and Jason DePinto. I mention these folks up front because they took the time to talk to nsshere, and have even invited her to shadow them for a show. I think this was very gracious and will be a wonderful learning opportunity for her. I should note that nsshere loved the show — not for the “live porn” (as she put it — you get a glimpse of boob and butt), but for the geekgasm she had with all the lighting techniques and tricks.

Turning to other technical credits. The show was choreographed by Bill T. Jones (assisted by Joann M. Hunter) who put raw power into the dances. The costumes, which were relatively simple, were designed by Susan Hilferty. The music was supervised by Kimberly Grigsby, coordinated by Michael Keller, directed by Jared Stein. Stein (assisted by Kristen Lee Rosenfeld) led the onstage band consisting of Alon Bisk (Cello), Julie Danielson (Bass), Freddy Hall (Guitar), Ben Lively (Violin/Guitar), Marques Walls (Percussion), and Karen Waltuch (Viola). Annmarie Milazzo provided Vocal Arrangements, and Simon Hale did the string orchestrations. The technical supervisor was Neil A. Mazzella. The general manager was Abbie M. Strassler.

All of the actors are members of æ Actors Equity.

Spring Awakening” continues at the Ahmanson until December 8.

As for us, next Friday brings the last show of the RepEast season, “And Then There Were None”. December 4th, 5th, and 6th brings “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School (with nsshere doing the lighting). Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings the winter show at Nobel Middle School. Saturday December 20th we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. I had hoped to see “I Love My Wife (Reprise), but it looks like the dates won’t work out. January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. January will also likely bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East, and “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson, although neither are ticketed yet. February 21 is “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as a peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.