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'Spring Awakening' brings sexual angst, ecstasy to stage

Kyle Riabko sings The Bitch of Living while playing the character Melchior in the musical Spring Awakening at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Kyle Riabko sings The Bitch of Living while playing the character Melchior in the musical Spring Awakening at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

TAMPA — Spring Awakening comes to town with eight 2007 Tony Awards (including best musical), putting nudity, masturbation, incest, abortion, suicide and the f-word onstage to a rock beat. Freely adapted (by playwright Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik) from Frank Wedekind's century-old play about the sexual awakening of German adolescents, it has tapped into a much younger audience than Broadway normally attracts. The musical opened Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Some reflections from opening night:

The agony and ecstasy: If Spring Awakening does nothing else, it portrays the exquisite awkwardness of teen sexuality as well as anything I've come across (at least since Scott Spencer's 1979 novel Endless Love). The sex — and there is plenty of it — is provocative, no doubt about that, but it's the point of the show, after all.

Star in the making: Christy Altomare, who plays the doomed Wendla. Her solos, Mama Who Bore Me and Whispering, are haunting, beautiful theater. She heads a very youthful cast that also includes noteworthy performances by Kyle Riabko as Melchior, the rebellious idealist who has a tragic romance with Wendla; Blake Bashoff as Moritz, the hapless dreamer with the shockheaded hairdo; and Steffi D as Ilse, the bad girl with a good heart.

Lust for laughs: Some of the funniest scenes involve Hanschen (Andy Mientus), a blond Aryan type. One is the masturbation scene in which he locks himself in the bathroom with the 19th century's precursor to Playboy, a postcard of the Correggio painting Jupiter and Io (confusingly, Hanschen refers to Desdemona in his orgasmic bliss). Another amusing moment is Hanschen's spider-and-the-fly seduction of Ernst (Ben Moss) in the Act II reprise of The Word of Your Body.

Song you'll love: Totally F---ed, for anyone with a 401(k).

'Purple' passion: Flashy rockers like The Bitch of Living and Totally F---ed get the attention, but it's in group numbers like My Junk, Touch Me and I Believe where Sheik's score really shines. High school chorus directors should be rushing to program the show's closing number, The Song of Purple Summer.

Needs WORK: It's fun to watch conductor-keyboardist Jared Stein lead the seven-piece onstage band — an unorthodox mix of strings, rock guitar and drums, piano and harmonium — but Tuesday's performance became a bit ragged at the top of Act II in the intricate interplay between Moritz and Ilse in Don't Do Sadness and Blue Wind. Balances between band and singers were out of whack.

Shouldn't work, but does: Director Michael Mayer had a big hand in the success of Spring Awakening, bringing Broadway savvy and razzmatazz to what could have been deadly dull stuff. (You mean to tell me you're making a musical that includes references to Virgil, Goethe's Faust and Michaelmas?) Bill T. Jones' choreography (love the herky-jerky arm movement in Totally F---ed) explodes off the stage. Kevin Adams' lighting, which ranges from subtle simplicity to neon garishness, is splendid. Having some audience members seated on risers on both sides of the stage, along with cast members, is a nice touch.

A few reservations: For all their skill and commitment to the material, Sater and Sheik do water down Wedekind's bleak play, turning Melchior's rape of Wendla into a passionate romp in the hayloft, and tacking on a sentimental coda in The Song of Purple Summer. There is a jarring disconnect in some scenes between the hard-rocking score and the period dialogue. (For a masterful, if cranky, discussion of the musical's shortcomings, see novelist Jonathan Franzen's introduction to his recently published translation of the play.) The adults in the show (all played by Angela Reed and Henry Stram) are broad caricatures of rigid puritanical morality as opposed to the fully realized characters that the kids are. Spring Awakening's intimacy is somewhat dwarfed in 2,500-seat Morsani Hall.

Go or no? Absolutely, and especially recommended for grownups and teens who would welcome the opportunity to share meaningful, realistic talk about sex. It might save a lot of grief later on.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

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Spring Awakening

The show runs through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $38.50-$67.50, plus service charges. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

'Spring Awakening' brings sexual angst, ecstasy to stage 12/31/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 9:17pm]

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