April 15, 2012.By Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press.
You could light a bonfire with the energy coming off the stage at Theater Latte Da's "Spring Awakening." A big one.
The rock-ish musical has an unlikely subject - the danger of not educating young people about sex and life - but it catches fire early, with a roomful of schoolboys singing the attention-must-be-paid anthem, "The Bitch of Living." Leaping up and down, harmonizing at full throttle and banging the furniture in the most inventive choreographic use of chairs since "Cabaret's" "Mein Herr," the boys create the kind of thrill you get only from live theater. They also underscore one of the themes of the show: that their adolescent fury is about to burst.
The same is true at a neighboring girls school, where Wendla (Cat Brindisi) and her friends also have feelings they don't know where to put. When Wendla meets the similarly disaffected Melchior (David Darrow), they start to figure things out, putting into motion a tragedy no one in their village - where even doctors are afraid to use words like "pregnant" - is equipped to deal with.
Meanwhile, Melchior's troubled pal, Moritz (Tyler Michaels) is also trapped between his feelings and his repressed parents. (The only healthy relationship in the show is a gay one, possibly because outsiders instinctively know they must figure out their own rules?)
The Broadway production of "Spring Awakening" felt stiff, trapped by its ironic setting. "Spring Awakening" takes place in Germany more than a century ago but is also meant to seem like it could be taking place as recently as this morning and as nearby as, say, the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Maybe the original production got lost in the huge theaters where it played.
In any case, Theater Latte Da's intimate "Spring Awakening" feels looser, more natural and much, much funnier. Director Peter Rothstein and his talented cast effortlessly convey the "then and now" aspect of "Spring Awakening" by hanging onto the idea that, in far too many ways, then is now.
With its young-people-in-bloom message, "Spring Awakening" can come off as earnest and precious - if there were a "Simpsons" parody, it would probably be called "Youth Youthening" - but Latte Da's production feels immediate and urgent. Right from the beginning, when Wendla races on stage before the announcer has even finished his spiel about turning off our cellphones, we get the sense of characters who are in a hurry to find out about the world. Trouble is, they are not getting any help from the adults in their lives, who are so peripheral that all of them are played by actors James Detmar and Michelle Barber (the real-life mother of Brindisi, her roles include that of Wendla's mom).
Maybe the smartest of many smart decisions in this production was producing it in collaboration with the University of Minnesota. The young actors don't have to pretend to be young because they are young, as Michaels demonstrates by turning the jungle-gym-like set into a literal playground during his acrobatic "Don't Do Sadness."
Brindisi, whose father is Michael Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, finds a mass of youthful contradictions in Wendla, who is vulnerable, funny, brave and terrified all at once (prediction: Chanhassen/"Funny Girl"/soon). Cutting through the confusion is Grant Sorenson, who is hilarious as the matter-of-factly gay Hanschen.
But, honestly, "Spring Awakening" presents an evening full of highlights: Carl Flink's emphatic choreography (which suggests Bill T. Jones' original moves, but feels more organic), the gorgeous blending of the voices, Jonathon Offutt's elegant lighting design. If I were a fan of musical theater, I wouldn't want to miss any of it. Wait. I am one. And I'm glad I didn't.