A mighty Spring awakens at San Jose Rep

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Jason Hite is Melchior Gabor in the stunning production of Spring Awakening at San Jose Repertory Theatre, with direction by Rick Lombardo and choreography by Sonya Tayeh. Below: Hite is surrounded by Miguel Cervantes as Moritz and Eryn Murman as Wendla. Photos courtesy of San Jose Repertory Theatre

The original production of Spring Awakening, the musical based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, was so vivid, so powerful and so widely seen throughout the Bay Area, it’s rather astonishing that San Jose Repertory Theatre has the cheek to produce the show’s first regional production. Ah, but what cheek. Director Rick Lombardo, also San Jose Rep’s artistic director, choreographer Sonya Tayeh (a guest judge and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance) and musical director Dolores Duran-Cefalu have done such original work that they make the show their own.

They haven’t reinvented it exactly, but they eschew a major component of Broadway director Michael Mayer’s production – the kids here don’t whip out microphones for every number – and Tayeh’s choreography, while muscular and energetic like Bill T. Jones’ original, is much more emotional and evocative.

For fans of Spring Awakening, and I definitely count myself a fan, this production is a revelation if only because it allows you to see the show afresh and fall in love with it all over again. The fact is that Wedekind wrote a provocative play about society’s dangerous repression of teenage minds and bodies. Then composer Duncan Sheik and book writer/lyricist Steven Sater wrote an equally provocative and ultimately more astonishing musical adaptation of it. This is a beautifully written show, and as the play now begins to make its way through theaters large and small around the country, it will be fascinating to see how it filters through a wide variety of theater artists.

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In San Jose, Lombardo and his team delivers a production that pulses with youthful energy and talent. The impressive cast boasts young professionals as well as students from nearby San Jose State (part of a new partnership between the two organizations), and they all attack the challenging material with gusto.

The cast is headed by Jason Hite as Melchior, the teen heartthrob of the provincial German town where the story is set. Hite, so brilliant in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Girlfriend two seasons ago, imbues Melchior with the necessary arrogance and intelligence but also finds deep wells of passion and emotion in the character. His scenes with Eryn Murman (a swing in the original Broadway production) as Wendla – most notably the famous switch scene followed by the hayloft seduction – are charged with innocence and sensuality. As the resident heartthrob, Hite’s Melchior brandishes an acoustic guitar in several numbers (looking not unlike a young Elvis) and rocks his way through a rabid “Totally Fucked” and a tender “Those You’ve Known.”

As Mortiz, Melchior’s shaky best friend, Miguel Cervantes (from the cast of American Idiot) displays a powerful voice on “And Then There Were None” and duets memorably with Zarah Mahler as Ilse on “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind.” Because he’s the anti-hero, Moritz plays an electric guitar (a very nice touch).

Representing all the (mostly oafish) adults are Cindy Goldfield and Todd Alan Johnson, both of whom seem relish the comedy of the horribly snotty teachers. Goldfield is especially funny/touching as Wendla’s mother, who cannot bring herself to have “the talk” with her curious teenage daughter.

Duran-Cefalu’s seven-piece onstage band plays expertly, switching effectively from tender, string-laced ballads to raging rockers. The one real drawback to this excellent production is the sound design, which renders everything with a muffled tone, obscuring some lyrics and other musical details and dampening some of the show’s energy.

John Iacovelli’s effective set is essentially a large hall – a gymnasium perhaps? – with chairs and a large table that is used to represent a schoolroom, a coffin and a hayloft, among other things. The most active piece of the set is lighting and media designer David Lee Cuthbert’s projections through the large windows that ring the top of the set. From the opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” the projections are busy with fine art images of mother and child. It’s too much projection too soon and distracts from Murman’s performance of the song.

Throughout the play’s 2 1/2 hours, the projections are either gorgeous or too much. There are moments when the video is perfectly integrated, as when a father wonders what his son is doing making all that noise in his room. A giant keyhole appears on screen, and then a giant eyeball peeking through. Other times, the projections compete too much with the performers, especially when they’re executing Tayeh’s dynamic, beautifully detailed choreography, which really deserves our undivided attention.

In the end, San Jose Rep’s Spring Awakening captures the show’s humor, its passion and its bursting need to express beauty and pain in equal measure.


Spring Awakening continues through Sept. 25 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $12.50-$79. Call 408-367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com.

San Jose Rep announces new artistic director

San Jose Repertory Theatre announced today that Rick Lombardo of Boston’s New Repertory Theatre will be the company’s next artistic director, succeeding the Rep’s long-time director, Timothy Near.

According to a press release, the six-month nationwide search landed on Lombardo for “his combination of artistic excellence, programming savvy and leadership abilities.”

“In Rick Lombardo we have found a proven leader who will complement the current team and help take San Jose Rep to an exciting new level in the community as well as on stage,” said Stan Anders, chair of the search committee and incoming board president. “We look forward to his energy and insight as we launch a new era for the theatre.”

For ten of his twelve years as artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre (NRT), Lombardo oversaw all artistic and administrative operations and presided over a quadrupling of the theatre’s budget, a successful capital campaign, a doubling of attendance from 2002-to 2007 and a 500 percent increase in contributed revenue. An award-winning director, Lombardo produced four world premieres at NRT and directed a wide range of plays including Ragtime, Sweeney Todd, King Lear, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, Tartuffe, The Scarlet Letter and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Lombardo also was artistic director of The Players Guild in Canton, Ohio and was founding artistic director of the Stillwaters Theatre Company off-Broadway in New York. A National Merit Scholar and graduate of Georgetown, he received his MFA in directing from Boston University School for the Arts. He has taught at Fordham University and Farleigh Dickinson University. He has a strong commitment to diversity and developing education and outreach programs such as the successful “New Rep on Tour,” a school touring program funded by the NEA.

“I am honored to be named the next Artistic Director of San Jose Rep and to continue the high artistic tradition the Rep has established under the leadership of Timothy Near,” said Lombardo. “My work has always been to find the plays, stories and voices that have a powerful and lasting impact on an audience, and to use these plays as a way to begin a real engagement between community and artists around the important questions and ideas of our times. I’m very excited to begin planning my first season for Silicon Valley, and I’ll be spending as much time as I can at the Rep this fall to get the feel for my new home.”

Lombardo will begin the transition into his new position in the fall of 2008.

For information about the San Jose Rep season, visit www.sjrep.com