REVIEW: An intimate production by Theater Latté Da and the University of Minnesota reclaims the power of a rock musical with timeless themes.
"Spring Awakening" splashed onto Broadway in the same waters that had buoyed "Hair" and "Rent" in previous generations -- raw, rock music giving voice to an adolescent howl for recognition. The musical won eight Tonys and kept the O'Neill Theatre full for nearly three years with audiences who gobbled up Duncan Sheik's punky and alternative music.
As urgent as "Awakening" felt on Broadway, its strength evaporated in the large Minneapolis Orpheum Theatre during a 2009 tour.
This is why Theater Latté Da's production at Rarig Center, in partnership with the University of Minnesota theatre and dance department, is so satisfying. It reclaims the intimacy of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play indicting authoritarian structures. We can't expect to rediscover the shock that Wedekind evoked initially (no one touched the play until 1906), but we can appreciate the timeless cycle of youth's urge to refresh the world.
Peter Rothstein's direction feeds off the brisk pace of adolescence. When the kids aren't running about, they are throwing each other and wrestling through Carl Flink's choreography. Denise Prosek finds the thrumming heartbeat of Sheik's music with a perfect ear. All this effervescence lifts the ensemble's energy, and it creates contrast for the poignant, quiet moments. Jonathon Offutt's lighting also sets mood.
Cat Brindisi stands head and shoulders above her mates as the lead character of Wendla. In Brindisi's supple and mature voice, lyrics are cradled with meaning. Opening the show with the plaintive cry, "Mama Who Bore Me," Brindisi sings words and phrases as if they are intended to be understood -- which is not always a given. This is an actor with emotional transparency flowing through big, soulful eyes and a smile that seems larger than a human face can contain. She makes us care about Wendla's fate.
David Darrow as Melchior is less charismatic in style and voice, though he carries a spiky sensibility leavened with a hint of insecurity. Darrow's shining moment is in Melchior's full-throated scream of desperation in the song, "Totally F****ed." It is the show's most anarchic number, the cast writhing through Flink's choreographed chaos and Prosek's raucous sound.
Larissa Gritti's Ilse has the sad mien of a wanton, damaged girl who longs for innocence in "Blue Wind." Tyler Michaels as Moritz scrambles at one point into the Rarig balcony and slides down a pole, bringing "Spider-Man" to mind. His voice carries "The Bitch of Living" and "Don't Do Sadness," and yet Moritz's psychic agony somehow does not quite pierce us in Michaels' presence.
All these fresh young faces should not let us forget James Detmar and Michelle Barber, who very ably shift among the adult roles.
Rothstein's production works best on these terms: It locates the personal immediacy amid the pageantry of music and movement. "Spring Awakening" beautifully reminds us that every generation needs its voice.