Rite of Spring

Bold rock musical addresses adult themes

By Jenny Lower 11/08/2012


Ten minutes into the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s production of Spring Awakening — around the time six German schoolboys in ties and knee socks fling down their slates, leap off desks, stomp their feet and belt out an anthem of teen angst, or in other words, instantaneously — you realize you are watching something great.

Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s subversive 1891 play took Broadway by storm in 2006, sweeping the Tony Awards with its fresh-faced cast and earning legions of followers among passionate young theatergoers. Director David Ralphe and producer Jan Glasband have produced a version so faithful to the original, it borders on worshipful, but nearly every bit as energetic and exciting. Simply put, this is one of the best musicals I have seen on county stages in years.

The musical layers a contemporary rock opera mentality (think Tommy or Hair) over a resurrected story: Spring’s Awakening, a tale of young teens in a small German town discovering their sexuality amidst dogmatic repression. Costumes and hairstyles remain true to the time, but a live band accompanies the actors, who break into rock ballads clutching hand-held mics. Exposed brick suggests rather than re-creates the provincial setting.

At opening we meet Wendla (Chelsea Pitillo), a ripening beauty and aunt twice over, eager to learn how babies are made. She sits earnestly at her mother’s knee, but the mortified woman covers her daughter’s face and mumbles something about loving one’s husband. Wendla remains confounded.

Such evasion characterizes nearly all the adults, masterfully captured by only two actors (Sean Harrington and Lori Lee Gordon, who also did the costumes). They ignore, belittle or abuse the youngsters. Is it any surprise the independent-minded Melchior (Chrys Ryan) determines there must be a better way?

We can guess the play’s trajectory from the moment Melchior shows his friend Moritz (an outstanding Nick Bernardi) some anatomically correct doodles, but still we watch Wendla and Melchior’s tentative steps toward first love with all the anticipation of our own. And when the first half concludes with its inevitable climax, the realistic staging feels less gratuitous or salacious than brimming with wonder at the mystery of human sexuality.

The show’s transgressiveness helps account for its popularity among teens; their parents may be less enthusiastic. Abortion, homosexuality, incest and suicide all get some treatment here. The second half plays like an indictment against the grown-ups, with unearned tragedy raining down on our heroes. Under Matthew Park’s musical direction, the young cast captures the emotional high points with ensemble numbers like “Totally Fucked” and Ryan and Pitillo’s exquisite duo, “The Word of Your Body.” Choreographer Becky Castells is at her finest with “The Bitch of Living” and “Touch Me.”

Awakening is a bold choice for a conservative town, but it feels too relevant to be dismissed simply as controversy for controversy’s sake. The ARTS team has created something vital and extraordinary.

Spring Awakening, Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., through Dec. 2. Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley, 583-7900, www.simi-arts.org/.


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