Spring Awakening opens at Orpheum; crowd wowed, confused

Spring Awakening opens at Orpheum; crowd wowed, confused

Spring Awakening slammed into Minneapolis Tuesday night, brimming with pop music and teen angst and cool hair -- and totally living up to its impressive Broadway run.

The runaway musical hit, which nabbed eight Tony Awards in 2007 and inspired a cult fan following in New York, opened at the Orpheum Theater. Hardly a seat in the auditorium wasn't filled.

The musical, with book and lyrics by playwright Steven Shater and music by pop artist Duncan Sheik, is based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind. Considered shocking for its time, the play was about emerging sexuality among young German students, and included masturbation, homoeroticism and abortion. Wedekind's play is dark, with the lead character, Melchior, beating and raping the heroine, Wendla.

The musical replaces the rape with consensual sex and a more romantic plotline. But despite its often peppy score, the musical is far from perky. The themes are heavy, the story tragic, and a couple of songs are real tear-jerkers. One of the most poignant was "The Dark I Know Well," a song about sexual abuse.

Sheik and Sater targeted the musical at teenagers and young adults -- not typically known for being theater-goers. The musical started its run at Atlantic Theater Company, a 165-seat off-Broadway theater. It moved uptown, and after 888 performances, the New York run closed last month.

The traveling cast was outstanding, particularly Kyle Riabko, who debuted on Broadway as Melchior and has reprises that role here. Steffi D is one to watch; she plays Ilse with such charisma that when she is on stage, it is hard to look away from her. Blake Bashoff's Moritz is sweetly endearing. At 27, Bashoff is the eldest of the young ensemble, who all look about age 18. Another bright spot is Angela Reed as "Adult Women" -- she adopts each of her roles with the fluid flexibility of a veteran actress.

Younger audiences, likely to jeer the classic sing-and-dance shtick of a Guys and Dolls or an Oklahoma, find that the musical, despite its 19th-century setting, is thoroughly modern. Each aspect of the piece seems to fit the current moment. The set blends modern and old, with bright neon lights, and art-covered brick walls that evoke a trendy New York loft -- with a particular interest in 19th-century art. The show feels participatory. Audience members sit on the stage -- Orpheum marketing tells us these are the cheap seats, folks -- and theater-goer look-alikes pop up unexpectedly, as part of the cast, to join in the lyrics. And the songs are the most modern. Written as internal monologues, they are somehow more believable than the the traditional stop-the-action-to-sing style of early musicals. As the actors dance around in their 19th-century fashion, the feelings that they express become timeless. And singing those feelings? Hey, we're all rock stars in our own minds -- or at least the shower.

And while the musical style is decidedly young, the theme is something everyone can relate to. Who doesn't remember adolescent lust and early sexual experiences?

Then again, maybe not. A few rows from the front, two middle-aged couples snarked about the show as they sipped their Orpheum cocktails. They said they didn't get it. They said they needed to call their 16-year-old kid for a translation. Perhaps. But I think they were just being funny.

The show runs through Feb. 1. Prices are $28 to $78; student rush tickets are $20 one hour before the performance.

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