by Joel Elkins~
Broadway musicals tend to be lavish, professionally produced and out of many people’s price range. Enjoying such an experience in LA will typically set back the average theatergoer $80 or more for seats in Row ZZ at the Ahmanson or Pantages. But once in a while, one can experience the same quality theater at less than one-third the price at one of LA’s many small theaters, where the rows usually don’t even go past F, let alone get into double digits.
The limited engagement of Spring Awakening at the Egyptian Arena Stage in Hollywood offers one of those rare opportunities. It is truly a Broadway-caliber production in a much more intimate setting. The highly talented cast and meticulous direction of Kate Sullivan deliver all the strong voices, intricate musical arrangements and high energy that rocked Broadway from 2006 through 2009 while running away with eight Tony awards in 2007, including the one for best musical.
Adapted from the nineteenth century German play of the same name which was widely banned for many decades, the musical adopts the same “in-your-face” (albeit modernized) attitude, with numbers such as “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.” Drawing on the play’s original themes of the consequences of sexual repression, it does not shy away from presenting scenes of simulated sex, masturbation and S&M while discussing underage sex, child abuse, suicide and abortion, among other subjects. Certainly not your parents’ musical theater. It says something – about the musical and the times – that one of the least controversial scenes is a tender kiss between two boys.
The story takes place in a provincial German town in the 1890s, where the discussion of sex is strictly verboten and positive reinforcement of youth isn’t even considered. Children were kept in line through intimidation, social pressure and physical force, if need be.
At the center of the story is a pair of star-crossed lovers, Wendla and Melchior (played superbly by Lindsay Pearce and Mat Vairo), whose knowledge of the birds and the bees gets them into trouble: her, from knowing too little and him, from knowing too much. Chase Williamson is perfect as Moritz, who, with assistance of makeup designer Jill Pugh, channels his inner Charlie Sheen. Melchior’s attempts to guide the confused and hormone-rattled Moritz through his troubles are no match for the pressures exerted on him by his parents, educators and clergy. Kelly Lester and David Carey Foster play all the adult characters, who collectively manage to make life miserable for Moritz and the other teenager protagonists, so much so that the play could easily have been subtitled “How Not To Raise Your Children.” In a moment of defiance and frustration, Melchior rebelliously echoes the play’s dominant theme: “Shame is a product of education.”
The rest of the cast (including select members of the “audience” who join the chorus during certain numbers) are equally adept, all exhibiting the strong voices, wonderful harmonies and raw energy essential to such a production. Special kudos to Rachael Lawrence (Musical Director) and Laura Harrison (Choreographer) for their fine work staging the complicated musical numbers. Stephen Gifford’s set design makes optimal use of the small stage, managing to fit the band onto the stage itself and making double use of an upright piano as a piece of both the set and musical accompaniment. A blackboard suspended over the stage also serves as a convenient list of the play’s musical numbers.
I simply find it hard to see how any production of this musical, regardless of size or budget, could surpass the quality and enjoyability of this one. And for a short time, lucky Angelinos can experience it for a (spirited, irreverent, hauntingly catchy) song.
Spring Awakening plays Thursdays through Sundays at 8 pm through April 22.
The Theatre of Arts Egyptian Arena Stage is located at 1625 N. Las Palmas (just south of Hollywood two blocks block east of Highland) in Hollywood.