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'Spring Awakening': Is that sex on stage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center?

Christy Altomare plays Wendla and Kyle Riabko plays Melchior in the national tour of Spring Awakening, the Broadway musical with a rock score adapted from a 19th century German play.

Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Christy Altomare plays Wendla and Kyle Riabko plays Melchior in the national tour of Spring Awakening, the Broadway musical with a rock score adapted from a 19th century German play.

TAMPA — Spring Awakening, opening here on Tuesday, is not your mother's Broadway musical. Touching on topics that include teen sex, masturbation, abortion and suicide, it sets a tale of young 19th century Germans to a pulsating rock score with frenetic dance.

Judy Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which is hosting the six-day run, has been worrying about the Tony Award-winning musical ever since she saw it almost two years ago. Lisi loved the show, but she wondered how it could ever tour with scenes such as one of a partly nude boy and girl making love in a hayloft at the end of the first act.

"This is a show that won eight Tonys and people want to see it,'' she said. "But they didn't change it for the road. If you start toning it down, you lose the quality that makes the show what it is.''

For the first time, subscribers to the TBPAC Broadway series were given the option not to include the show as part of their season ticket package. Most of the 9,000 subscribers chose to include Spring Awakening, but lots of tickets remain. Lisi hopes college students home for the holidays will be drawn to the show.

"I was pleasantly surprised that 80 percent of subscribers wanted to see it,'' Lisi said. "Some of our little old ladies, it's not for them, and that's fine.''

View from the stage

Kyle Riabko plays Melchior, whose relationship with a girl named Wendla includes the hayloft sex scene.

"Before we get there, people get worried about it and say they don't know how we're ever going to do it, and then when we actually do it, it's fine,'' Riabko, 21, said. "People are a lot more progressive than we give them credit for.''

Christy Altomare, 22, who plays Wendla, thinks her lovemaking scene with Riabko is a realistic depiction of adolescents discovering their sexuality. "It's not put together like a porno or something raunchy,'' she said. "It's a beautiful piece of art that I am proud to show every night on stage. The audience reaction is never one of shock or disgust.''

Other scenes, such as one in which a boy masturbates beneath his nightshirt, or when a girl named Martha tells her friends about the abuse and incest she suffers at home, cause more of a stir.

"When Martha is talking about being beaten by her father, I've seen more walkouts there than in the so-called offensive parts,'' Riabko said.

Pushing the envelope

Plenty of shows with risque material have been presented at TBPAC in the past, such as Kiss of the Spider Woman, which has a gay relationship at the heart of the story, or a kinky revival of Cabaret. But Lisi thinks Spring Awakening, loosely adapted from an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, is still a landmark in pushing the envelope of taste.

Certainly, no Broadway musical has ever had a number with lyrics so bluntly explicit as Melchior's hard-rocking Totally F-----. "We've never heard that in the theater, absolutely not,'' Lisi said. "And it's a major song. It's not like you can drop it. You couldn't say 'Totally Bleeped.' ''

Duncan Sheik, the singer-songwriter who composed the musical, is dismayed that presenters have felt the need to be so cautious. "If you turn on MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon, it's five times as prurient as Spring Awakening ever gets,'' he said. "Granted, there's some nudity on stage, but if you ask me, it's very subtle and it's handled very gracefully. And granted, the people in the show use the f-word a lot, but where in the culture don't you hear that?''

Educational outreach

Gammage Auditorium, which presents the Broadway series in Tempe, Ariz., brought in Spring Awakening producer Tom Hulce to speak at community events to prepare the way for the show's run in December.

"There will be places that will be nervous about us,'' said Hulce, better known as an actor for his role as Mozart in the hit 1984 movie Amadeus. "That is to be expected with a show this unique. But because the show deals with the discomfort of adults in being open and forthcoming with young people, it's incumbent on us not to be coy.''

"We have a large Mormon population here, so we did a lot of educational outreach,'' said Michael Porto, director of communications for the Gammage, which is on the Arizona State University campus. The production sold $713,000 worth of tickets for eight performances, with only "a handful'' of walkouts, according to Porto.

Drawing a crowd

Spring Awakening is something of a commercial risk, given that Tampa Bay area audiences are much more likely to flock to frothy feel-good musicals like Mamma Mia! or family extravaganzas like The Lion King than serious theater.

Lisi hopes the musical will draw young people to the Broadway series, whose subscribers' average age is "probably late 40s, early 50s,'' she said. The hall has tried to reach a younger audience through the show's Web pages on MySpace and Facebook and a site called the Guilty Ones (www.forum.theguiltyones.org), named after a song in the show. Last week, advance tickets sales were 64 percent of capacity in the 2,500-seat Morsani Hall, not out of line for a show for which walk-up sales are expected to be pivotal.

"The timing of this has been a little difficult, since it can be hard to reach people during the holidays,'' Lisi said. "If we hit 80 percent, everyone will be thrilled.''

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

'Spring Awakening'

Spring Awakening opens Tuesday and has eight performances through Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets: $38.50-$67.50, plus service charges. Call (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045, or go to tbpac.org.

'Spring Awakening': Is that sex on stage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center? 12/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 1:20pm]

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