A mighty Spring awakens at San Jose Rep

Spring 1

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.

Spring 2

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.

Review: `Spring Awakening’

Opened Sept. 7, 2008 at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco

Kyle Riabko and Christy Altomare are Melchior and Wendla, the doomed lovers in Spring Awakening, the Tony Award-winning musical that launched its national tour at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Photos by Paul Kolnik.


Sex, violence and rock ‘n’ roll: `Spring Awakening’ jolts San Francisco

It’s appropriate that on the very same night Rent ended its 12-year run on Broadway, Spring Awakening officially launched its national tour at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

Both shows re-imagine older texts – for Rent it was Puccini’s La Boheme, for Spring Awakening it was Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play of the same name – and infuse them with elements of pop, rock and Broadway. And each show in its own way has taken musical theater a step away from extinction.

Unlike Rent, which never really had a chance to be finished, Spring Awakening is an expertly crafted masterwork in the art of musical theater. The show, with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, connects on a powerfully emotional and visceral level. It breaks all the rules and dares to be as bold as it is beautiful.

The national touring company that opened Sunday night is every bit as good as the original Broadway company – in some cases better — and the production itself is just as electrifying. The young performers, ranging in age from 18 to 27, attack the piece with gusto and don’t shy away from the sex, nudity, masturbation, violence and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion that infuses its 2 ½ hours.

Director Michael Mayer maintains firm control over the proceedings, guiding his vibrant young performers to an astonishing level of honesty as they veer between the late 19th-century play about adult repression of hormonal teenagers and the 21st-century rock concert that unleashes a torrent of emotions. It helps that Christine Jones’ set keeps things simple (with audience members seated on the right and left sides of the stage) for the scenes and then allows Kevin Adams’ gorgeous lighting design to wash over the stage and provide rock concert energy during the songs.

Heading the cast is Kyle Riabko as Melchior Gabor, a bright young man “of distinct intellectual capacity,” as Sater puts it, and Blake Bashoff as Moritz Stiefel, a “neurasthenic imbecile” and Melchior’s best friend.

Moritz, with his punk-rock haircut and desperate face, is the show’s anti-hero with a too-active mind (and libido) and nowhere to channel his considerable energies. Bashoff’s take on the character is more comic to start, but when, in Act 2, Moritz’s story turns tragic, Bashoff is like an exposed nerve, and his pain is palpable, most notably in the raging “Don’t Do Sadness.”

Melchior is a much smoother character, but he has his share of inner turmoil, which Riabko communicates effectively. In the devastating second act, this young Canadian rock star proves himself an actor of considerable depth and commitment. He gives a great performance and bears the emotional weight of the play in his extraordinary ballad “Those You’ve Known.”

Christy Altomare is Wendla Bergman, a curious young woman who inspires the show’s (and the original play’s) most provocative scene when she asks Melchior to beat her because her comfortable life has been so devoid of acute feeling or sensation. Stunningly beautiful and with a voice to match, Altomare is entirely believable as someone trapped in the chasm between child and adult, and her performance of “Whispering,” a ballad tinged with hope and tragedy, is shattering.

The power of the entire ensemble, which includes Angela Reed and Henry Stram as all the adult characters, is undeniable, especially when they join voices on songs such as “Touch Me,” “I Believe” and the exquisite, heart-rending “Song of Purple Summer.” AnnMarie Milazzo’s vocal arrangements find the rich textures of Sheik’s gorgeous music, and music director Jared Stein is able to take his seven-piece band from the delicate chamber sound to full-on rock ‘n’ roll rage.

And then there are those incredible moments of chaos amid the sadness and balladry. First we get the boys, in the midst of a stern, abusive Latin lesson, breaking into “The Bitch of Living,” and then we get the entire cast exploding into teenage anarchy in “Totally F***ed.” Both numbers feature the extraordinary choreography of Bill T. Jones, whose gestural vocabulary, built slowly and subtly throughout the show, erupts into a storm of bodies punctuating the air with expressed anger and the joy of sweet release.

We’ve been told that in musicals, the songs should forward the story or reveal character, but here, Sheik and Sater’s songs don’t usually do that. They’re more like emotional commentary, a bridge between the late 1800s and now. It’s a score that is immediately appealing and accessible but that rewards the listener with something new on every listen.

The cast performs expertly — Steffi D as Ilse, a young woman cast out of her home to fend for herself, makes a huge impression on “Blue Wind” – but there are places where more performance experience will reveal further depths.

That said, there’s no denying the power and sheer beauty of this remarkable show.

Will Spring Awakening have the staying power of Rent? I’d venture to say it will have more than staying power: it will go down in musical history as one of the greats.


Spring Awakening continues through Oct. 12 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater spring beyond `Awakening’

For the Tony Award-winning composing team of Steven Sater (book and lyrics, above left) and Duncan Sheik (music), Spring fever may be abating.

The duo, along with director Michael Mayer, worked on bringing their musical Spring Awakening to Broadway for seven long years. Then the show opened, won eight 2007 Tony Awards and has just launched its national tour at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Upcoming productions will begin sprouting up around the world.

But Sater and Sheik are at work on other productions. As previously reported here, the duo’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Nightingale could make its world premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater next season if the theater gods (and money people) smile.

The duo is also re-working Nero, which had its world premiere as a play with songs at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in early 2006.

“That project has really changed dramatically,” Sater says. “We did a workshop of the revised version at New York Stage and Film with Idina Menzel, Lea Michelle, Michael Arden and a fantastic cast. It’s becoming our new musical along with The Nightingale. It’s really dark and dynamic and funny and musically really rich. This project has become very exciting.”

Sheik says that he’s pleased with the various iterations of Nero: “We’re very close to finding a kind of more final, presentable version. The Magic run really helped us figure out what works, what doesn’t. We had six or seven songs in that production. Now there are literally 30 pieces of music in that show.”

He says that five or six of the original songs are still in the show, with the song “Lover from Hell” as the cornerstone.

“I had my own skeptical feelings about Nero and whether it was something artistic or commercially viable,” Sheik says. “With the work we did this summer at New York Stage and Film, I saw it could really work. That was a huge relief for me, personally because, you know, you want to tell a story people can understand and get into. It’s hard to do that with an anti-hero. We figured out how to make it truly engaging, even with characters who don’t have a lot of sympathy attached.”

Sater is also at work with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian on a rock spectacular version of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Diane Paulus, who directed Hair in Central Park this summer, is slated to direct.

And Sheik is at work mixing his latest record project, Whisper House, which is released on Sony/Victor records on Jan. 27. This will be a full-on Duncan Sheik album, but the songs, developed with Kyle Jarrow, also form the score of a show, also called Whisper House about a boy who loses his father in World War II and moves with his mother into a haunted lighthouse. Sheik says there may be a production of the show (for which Jarrow is librettist and co-lyricist with Sheik) in Delaware next year.

“I just finished mixing the record, and I’m so happy with it,” Sheik says. “It was such a weird surprise. I recorded these things as demos, and everyone who heard them said if that’s not your next record, you’re crazy. Holly Brook, an amazing singer I’ve been working with, is my vocal partner on this record. I can’t wait to get it out in the world.”

Visit Sheik’s official site: http://www.duncansheik.com/oldsite/httpdocs/index.html

For information about the Spring Awakening national tour, at the Curran Theatre through Oct. 12, visit www.shnsf.com.

Here are Duncan Sheik and Holly Brook performing “Touch Me” from Spring Awakening:


Director address: Michael Mayer on `Spring Awakening’

Michael Mayer
, the Tony Award-winning director of Spring Awakening, remembers people looking at his show and saying things like: “You can’t be unconventional.” “That’s choreography?” “This is a musical?”

And Mayer is just fine with those questions.

“We didn’t set out to break rules,” Mayer says. “The idea was to tell this story, and this is the way we figured out how to do it.”

The “we” in this case is book/lyrics writer Steven Sater, adapting a late 1800s German play by Frank Wedekind, composer Duncan Sheik, choreographer Bill T. Jones and a passel of producers.

“We weren’t looking to Broadway,” Mayer recalls of the long gestation period for Spring go from play to pop-rock musical. “It took us seven years to produce this fucking thing. The goal was not to do a Broadway musical but to do Spring Awakening as a musical. It is miraculous and fantastic that Broadway became the final destination. Against all the odds, too, because this show plays by its own rules. Completely.”

Spring Awakening, about German teens coming of age and discovering sexuality in a highly repressive society, is sort of a play with a rock musical mixed in. Scenes stop, young actors whip out handheld microphones and launch into gorgeous, occasionally raucous, songs.

“The music functions differently here than in other musicals,” Mayer says. “It’s not a conventional musical where songs are concerned with character and logical storytelling in a narrative sense. There is an intentional dichotomy between the scenes and the songs.”

Some of Jones’ choreography, as in “The Bitch of Living” or “Totally Fucked,” is incredibly energetic – leaping of chairs and desks, jumping, spinning, chaotic flinging – and it feels somewhat dangerous. Mayer likes that.

“If the number feels safe, it’s not as exciting,” he says. “That said, we don’t take it to the point of injuries. Bill and I are constantly striving for the kids to push to the edge so it feels dangerous. Being careful in this show is only good in the scenes when you’re aware of how careful the characters need to be so they don’t transgress against the watchful eyes of adults. The story is all about transgression, but even then, `careful’ isn’t one of our watchwords. Au contraire. Try to be as risky as possible – emotionally, physically, musically.”

For the national tour of Spring Awakening, now at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre through Oct. 12, Mayer and his team scoured the country for fresh young performers, many of whom are making their professional debut.

“It’s tricky,” Mayer says. “We need the kids to deliver a professional show but still have the raw quality that is so important. The work is in some ways easier because they’re so close to who the characters are – they can relate.”

Undoubtedly, Spring Awakening will hit audiences young and old the way it continues to do on Broadway.

“I think what we love, all of us, is how bold the whole conceit of the show is and how brave it is for the performers to put themselves out there in such an extreme way,” Mayer says. “It pays off, and it’s personal. I ask for a deeply personal investment to be made in the song so that we almost get the sense of who the performers are as people through the song as opposed to just who their characters are. I feel like the audience can fall in love with these actors during this song as well as care about the characters’ journey. That’s why the audience gets so invested.”

One secret to the show’s success, something that took “weeks and weeks and weeks” to get right, according to Mayer, is the sound design.

“It’s very complex, and so much of the show is the band and the sound of the voices,” he says. “Once we got it right, you add in the audience response, and it’s completely not like any other show. It just isn’t.”

Spring Awakening continues through Oct. 12 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com.

Free `Spring Awakening’ event

Members of the Spring Awakening creative team will take part in a free “In Conversation” onstage event from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. The team will discuss the development of this Tony Award-winning show.

The event, moderated by Jesse McKinley of the New York Times, is in conjunction with opening night of the launch of the Spring Awakening national tour as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

Seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

In other Spring Awakening news, iTunes released yesterday a live, six-song album of songs from the show performed at the Apple Store in New York. Performers include composer Duncan Sheik, new Broadway cast member Hunter Parrish, and original cast members John Gallagher Jr. (a Tony winner) and Lauren Pritchard.

Read my breakdown of the Spring Awakening number “The Bitch of Living,” which originally appeared in the Aug. 31 Pink Section of the San Francisco Chronicle: www.sfgate.com.

5 questions for `Amadeus’ actor turned `Spring’ producer Tom Hulce

If the name Tom Hulce sounds familiar, it’s probably not because he’s one of the Tony Award-winning producers of the musical Spring Awakening. He rings that familiarity bell because he has one of the world’s most famous giggles. In 1984, he played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the movie Amadeus and received an Oscar nomination. Or, perhaps the less cultured among us remember him as Pinto in Animal House.

Hulce, 54, still acts occasionally but he’s more of a producer these days. While producing the 2004 movie A Home at the End of the World, Hulce discovered that his director, Michael Mayer, and the soundtrack composer, Duncan Sheik, were working on a musical adaptation of a controversial German play called Spring Awakening with writer Steven Sater.

Hulce agreed to join the team as a producer, and that decision led him to the 2007 Tony Awards.

Did that night at the Tonys remind you of being at the Academy Awards?

Tom Hulce: They were similar evenings because they were both oddly friendly and fun – I think because so many people from each project were nominated for their work. And here’s the funny thing. Amadeus was nominated for 11 awards and won eight. Spring Awakening was nominated for 11 awards and won eight.

What do you think that means?

Hulce: I’ve been extremely lucky. That’s what it means.

Why do you think Spring Awakening, which is essentially a late 19th-century teenage drama infused with a 21st-century pop-rock concert, has been such a huge hit?

Hulce: There is universality in the subject matter and this time in everyone’s life. Whether you’re 15 or 70p, a parent or a child, the show offers a different point of entry, a point of connection to the story. By the end of the evening, this commonality of experience accumulates so that everyone becomes one by the end. There’s something so satisfying about that. And then there’s the fact that the musical moments created by Duncan and Steven allow a kind of articulation and exhilaration that isn’t available in the real world of the story. There’s a kind of guilty joy in witnessing those kinds of moments. Duncan’s music is so amazingly melodic and Steven’s words are so poetic that you can really sense the darker moments underneath.

Is it inevitable that there will be a Spring Awakening movie musical?

Hulce: The negotiations are ongoing for the film version. It’s such an interesting prospect because everything that is so essential and unique about the musical is theatrical, about being in the room with the young people and feeling the excitement when they pull a microphone out of their school uniform. It’s interesting to talk about a cinematic equivalent.

The national tour of Spring Awakening launches in San Francisco with two leads from replacement casts on Broadway. How hard was it to cast the tour?

Hulce: Because people know what Spring Awakening is now, unlike when we started, we had interest from all over the country and assembled an incredible cast. We’re in love with this cast. And we have more casting to do because we have productions coming in London, Germany, Tokyo, Seoul – all these very different cultures around the world finding something so compelling about the story. This is so far beyond what I would have dared to dream.

For information about the Spring Awakening tour at the Curran Theatre, running through Oct. 12, visit www.shnsf.com.

Sheik, Sater want `Nightingale’ to fly at ACT

Duncan Sheik (left) and Steven Sater say they hope to open their new musical, The Nightingale, at American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Could San Francisco be the starting point for the follow-up to Spring Awakening?

If Tony Award-winning creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have anything to say about it, The Nightingale, their follow-up to the mega-hit musical Spring Awakening, will make its debut at the American Conservatory Theater in the near future.

In a recent phone interview, Sheik said that when he’s in town for the official launch of the Spring Awakening national tour in early September, he and Sater hope to sit down with ACT artistic director Carey Perloff.

“We really want to get down to brass tacks in terms of a schedule and a plan,” Sheik said. “I’m so crossing my fingers that we do the show in that theater. That’s been a dream of mine and Steven’s since we saw The Black Rider there. Love that space, love the ACT team. What better place to begin The Nightingale, this fairy tale of mythical China?”

Sater also confirmed the discussion with ACT: “We are in serious conversation with them,” he said. “I’m very hopeful of bringing Nightingale there sometime next year.’

Perloff said in a statement that The Nightingale has been a dream project for Sheik and Sater for many years, and they have “longed to see it born at ACT.” To that end, ACT, in association with Martin McCallum, produced a major New York workshop of The Nightingale in November last year in after which the writers continued working through rewrites and maintaining an open dialogue with ACT.

“After last year’s workshop, they did a major rewrite, coming up with a gorgeous, streamlined and deeply moving version of Hans Christian Andersen’s magical tale,” Perloff said. “We very much hope to realize this new musical as part of our 2009-10 Season. Like Fool Moon, Shockheaded Peter and other cross-generational pieces ACT has produced, this should be a huge event for the whole Bay Area.”

The Spring Awakening tour, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, opens Sept. 4 at the Curran Theatre. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

SF `Spring Awakening’ tix on sale; Riabko video

Tickets for the launch of the Spring Awakening national tour go on sale Sunday, July 20.

The tour of the eight-time Tony Award-winning rock musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater kicks off at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Sept. 4 through Oct. 12 as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series.

Tickets will range in price from $30 to $99 and beginning Sunday, July 20, can be purchased online at www.shnsf.com, through Ticketmaster by calling 415-512-7770 and at all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers. On Monday, July 21 tickets will also be available at the Orpheum Theatre Box Office (1192 Market St., Mon-Sat 10am – 6pm).

Here’s the performance schedule:
8 p.m. Tuesdays–Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6 p.m. Sundays. Added performance Sunday, Sept. 7 at 6:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m.
No performance Sunday, Sept. 7 at 1 p.m.

The tour will star Canadian pop star Kyle Riabko as Melchior Gabor. He’s currently doing the show on Broadway. Here’s an intro to Riabko. Keep in mind some fan literally filmed his/her television to get this footage (thanks, fan!), so the quality is not great.

`Spring Awakening’ tour news

The national tour of the Tony Award-winning Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening is growing ever closer. Performances begin Sept. 4 at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, and though that will be here before we know it, here’s a little casting news to fill the void.

Current Broadway SA cast members Kyle Riabko (Melchior Gabor), far right, and Blake Bashoff (Moritz Steiffel) will depart the New York cast to reprise their roles on tour.

Stepping into the role of Melchior on Broadway will be Hunter Parrish, right, who’s best known as Silas on Showtime’s “Weeds.”

For information about the San Francisco stop of the tour, visit www.shnsf.com or visit the official Spring Awakening site: www.springawakening.com

Here’s a little video action from the Spring Awakening kids.

Cubby smells a Tony

Meet Cubby Bernstein, the best damn Tony campaign guy around. He’s a about 13 years old (but has seemingly been around forever), and he’s the closest thing the Broadway community has to a viral video hit at the moment.

The gimmick is that Cubby is a spitfire Tony Award campaign manager, and whoever is writing for him is pretty darn funny (“Douglas Carter Beane is Paul Rudnick without the Yale degree!”). Check out the following videos and then go to www.cubbybernstein.com

Here’s the introductory episode:

And here’s Duncan Sheik being a very good sport: