Regional Reviews: St. Louis
It's another fantastic show directed by Justin Been at Stray Dog Theatre: pounding with life, and in-between the beats, full of keening adolescent anguish. If you had to have something like a musicalization of Rebel Without a Cause, this would be it, except with schoolboys in lederhosen and country girls in homespun, of course.
Riley Dunn becomes the James Dean figure in this admittedly creaky analogy. As Melchior, he's the handsome young rationalist who realizes there's a burning desire for information about sex among his peers that's just not being addressed in this 19th century milieu. And so he sets to work writing his own pamphlet on the subject. His scientific explanations amaze his friend Moritz (the outstandingly angsty Stephen Henley) and appall his elders (the always excellent Ben Ritchie and Jan Niehoff, who each alternate between kindly and stern characters throughout).
Mr. Ritchie and Ms. Niehoff add great underpinnings of old world authority, and even a refined sort of despotism, as they plot to ruin Moritz for his lack of seriousness in school. (Mr. Henley, as their victim, might remind you of Rebel's Sal Mineo in his endlessly interesting anxiety.) The whole mood of voyeurism, as we watch all these teenage libidos at work, changes to one of anguish (and even greater yearning) in the second half. That's also when the adults realize Melchior is linked to a pair of teen suicides which, of course, are even more directly linked to the adults themselves.
Somewhere between the brash, well-harmonized rock, and the beautiful, lingering softer music (and even two or three surprisingly suspenseful, pin-drop silences) this new revival of the 2006 musical fully renews our own long-gone sense of teenage strength and vulnerability. Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 drama, the original Broadway show won Tonys for Best Musical, Score and Book. And the 2015 version also won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
It's the first time I've ever seen Spring Awakening, outside of the popular "Totally Fucked" number (whose refrain is "blah-blah-blah," etc.) which you often hear at "show tunes nights" in bars. And, at last set into context, the act two anthem finally makes sense: generating great excitement with the help of Sam Gaitsch's thundering choreography.
Allison Arana is simple and heartwarming as Wendla, setting the stage for all the strictures and disappointments of girls in the 19th century. The young ladies are schooled separately from the boys and, until everyone starts having sex like mad, there's not much interaction. Angela Bubash returns, after a great appearance as Evelyn Nesbit in Stray Dog's recent production of Ragtime, this time as a vixenish teen; and Brigid Buckley and Dawn Schmid give gripping performances as victims of childhood sexual abuse. Very professional work all around, in a strong cast that also includes the respected young actors Kevin Corpuz and Luke Steingruby.
Stray Dog Theatre's Spring Awakening, through October 21, 2017 at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.