‘Spring Awakening’ in Novato provides brilliant, lofty, musical zing

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★★

Melchior (Ryan Hook) pushes himself on Wendla (Claudia Shapiro) in “Spring Awakening.” Photo by Katie Wickes.

Despite “Spring Awakening” having won eight Tonys in 2007, my intro to the dark, emotional songs of the punk rockish musical came via “Rise,” a 2017-18 television flop.

My wife enjoyed that melodramatic 10-episode, TV series about a high school in a conservative, working-class ‘hood. And although it dramatized the story of a real-life Pennsylvania teacher, I found the show peaking at low mediocre and lacking a pulse even as it appealed to my incurable desire to cheer for underdogs — in this case, pre-pubescent kids struggling with raging hormones.

Still, I was intrigued by the songs it cannibalized from the Broadway hit.

Both the stage version, co-produced by the Marin Musical Theatre Company and the Novato Theater, and TV show trace their roots to an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind that interwove multiple tales of sexual coming-of-age in a repressive Germany.

This rendition — which leapfrogs low mediocre to land on a plane of brilliant, lofty zing — showcases Wendla, an innocent who futilely begs her mom to tell her about love, then zips through a series of heavy changes that include being whipped (“my entire life I’ve never felt anything”), raped (consensually seduced?), pregnancy and abortion.

Claudia Shapiro plays Wendla with poignancy I can rarely link to a young performer, but opening night she lost her voice and was replaced in the second act by Emily Dwyer, who competently doubled as Martha, an adolescent whose father repeatedly abused her.

Also at the center of the MMTC panorama of teenage angst is Melchior (Ryan Hook), atheistic rebel who gives his suicidal friend Moritz (who’s guilt-ridden about erotic dreams and stress-tested by life itself) an illustrated, 10-page essay he’s written about sex that gets him detention time.

Tyler Gabel, the most conspicuous actor in the 21-member cast,  chews up the scenery as Moritz, his face contorted with anguish, his hands flailing and twitching with agony — which, in case I’m not being clear, is a delight to watch.

But Nelson Brown and Kristine Ann Lowry, each of whom play multiple adult roles, also deserve special acclaim.

Hanshen (Izaak Heath) and Ernst (Michael Kessell) share an intense gay moment. Photo by Katie Wickes.

The show, which spotlights in-your-face references to homosexuality, sadomasochism and masturbation, was originally subtitled “A Tragedy of Childhood”

Sound weighty? It is.

Sound complex? It is.

Sound nuanced? It is.

“Spring Awakening” is an often-touching show about almost every tough issue of growing up young folks have ever faced. But it’s also about the way we tend to keep at arms’ length, alienate and ultimately fail our inchoate kids.

Direction by Jenny Boynton and choreography by Katie Wickes, MMTC co-founders, are outstanding. Together, they’ve taken book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik and made sure the two-hour musical tragedy moves at lightning speed without a false note or false step.

They’ve also inserted an innovation — two mute dancing spirits who appear throughout, a light one who reflects “the innocence and purity of childhood happiness” and a dark one who conjures feelings of guilt, depression and ignorance (and represents the evil humanity and debilitating society pressures).

Outstanding among the  21 musical numbers are the show-stopping “Totally F–ked,” which has the entire company bouncing around the stage and aisles like coked-up monkeys.

Pockets of teenaged girls in the opening night audience giggled and cheered at those antics.

Costumes are appropriate to the era and age (white bloomers and black shorts are on full display), lighting design by Marilyn Izdebski is effective, and the set is sparse but spot on — three white arcs, the middle one decorated with a somewhat nightmarish tree that might have been conceived by Salvador Dali.

The only flaw in the ointment, to turn an idiom on its side, is that some actors look like they outgrew their high school characters about a decade before.

Because of the show’s troubling themes, the producers have tucked a one-sheet titled “You Are Not Alone” into the program. It helpfully lists local and 800 numbers for info about suicide prevention, grief counseling abortion and domestic violence.

Sure, “Spring Awakening” is disturbing, difficult to watch (not because of its brief nudity), and haunting afterwards. But it’s worth seeing because it’s an exceptional community theater experience, particularly if you — as I so often do — want to expand your mind.

As did my wife, who loved it too.

“Spring Awakening” will run at the Novato Theater, 5420 Nave Drive, Suite C., through March 16. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $27-$50. Information: 415-233-0263 or info@marinmusicals.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →