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Theatre 360 Takes a Gamble: a youth-filled “Spring Awakening”

The schoolboys of Theatre 360s "Spring Awakening" release their inner frustrations

The schoolboys of Theatre 360s “Spring Awakening” release their inner frustrations

“Spring Awakening,” the rock-styled musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik based on Frank Wedekind’s banned 1890s play, has become something of a phenomenon. Young audiences stream to the theater to see a musical which speaks to them in vibrant and visceral ways about their own experience.

Still, that very visceral nature – the show is almost entirely centered on kids in their mid-teens and the repression of sexual desire – can make it a bit startling when the performers are actually the age of the characters. Yet, that is what Theatre 360 has done, first in Hollywood and then in Pasadena. And, for the most part, it works.

Theatre 360 is, in essence, an impressive training ground for the next generation of performers. All of their productions feature young people, playing all including the adult rolls. Here, the reversals – younger kids playing parent to older ones, teachers as youthful (or perhaps even more so) than their pupils – become part of the show’s charm, and part of its message, underscoring that adult reasoning of the period sounds far more childish than that of the youth.

Director/choreographer Devon Yates captures the energy of the piece. What his choreography lacks in complexity it makes up for in energy. His performers are, by and large, most impressive. The results create a kind of genuineness just that much more authentic than most productions.

Which is not to say the show is perfect. As Melchior, the young man whose determined search for enlightenment undoes his family and his friends, Cristian Guerrero has the intensity and the conviction, and sings well, though his tendency to look morose creates an occasional sameness with Andrew Moorhead’s tormented depressive, Moritz. Both play their parts to the hilt, and between them keep the show moving at just the right speed.

Cristian Guerrero and Sarah Colt as Melchior and Wendla

Cristian Guerrero and Sarah Colt as Melchior and Wendla

As Wendla, Melchior’s hapless love interest, Sarah Colt finds a delightful balance between innocence, fear and curiousity. Ally Merrill, creates a disturbing believability in one of Wendla’s close friends, the abuse victim Martha. Alex Hurren, as the egotistical and handsome Hanschen, and Daniel Moore as the sweet-faced adorer Ernst, handle their own complex material with a lack of self-consciousness which makes it work.

Indeed, the whole company vibrates with a professionalism which allows this piece to be genuine, compelling and true to the script. The necessary sexual scenes are handled with just enough truth and just enough decorum to avoid inappropriateness in a company filled with so many youngsters. The language – some of it impressively real, but rather scatalogical – seems natural and right. Indeed, all the things one thinks might make a show like this done by children seems easy to move past.

Of course, the polish extends beyond the performers. Cheri Hurst’s costumes are, in some cases, better than the ones at the most recent professional production I saw. The instrumental ensemble of Michael Solomon, Freddy Hernandez, Mike Wendland and Olivia Breidenthal is as impressive as the kids, and keeps the piece moving. Indeed, with the exception of a questionable sound system, the thing runs like clockwork.

Theatre 360 offers extraordinary opportunities for young people to experience a professional atmosphere, and learn how to do their very best work. It was brave of Yates to use kids in a show with as much sexuality as this one, and yet it is also a rare chance to kids to speak to kids about the driving forces of libido, parental pressure and academic stress which is the very reason so many young people come to the show in the first place.

What: “Spring Awakening” When: Through May 19, 8 p.m Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Where: Porticos Theatre, 2033 E. Washington Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info about Theatre 360, including their summer program: (626) 577-5922

Passion Up Close: La Mirada’s “Spring Awakening” proves the show’s power

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

The cast of Spring Awakening in La Mirada [photos: Michael Lamont]

Like many here locally who cannot afford to travel to New York with any regularity, my first acquaintance with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Tony-winning musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening” was at the Ahmanson Theatre – that sizable, if generally theatrically pleasing facility. Though I found the show interesting, the large space did not allow for much intimacy with the material – something it apparently needed.

Here is how I know. A new venture at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has created a small performance space up on that theater’s stage, where the audience surrounds the performers on three sides, and everything they do and say is up close and very personal. “Spring Awakening” is the first production in this new arrangement. Seeing it done in this way makes obvious the power and visceral connection which won the show so many fans along the way.

The story follows a group of students in the mid-stages of puberty. As their hormones begin to rule their lives, they ask questions about basic biology which are consistently shut down by the repressive atmosphere of their society. Gradually their ignorance, and the adult world’s penchant for condemnation tear these teens apart, even as they confront the many other demons hidden behind the strict conformity of their world.

If that sounds dark, it is. Still, infused with songs of such intensity that you can feel the heat rising from the stage, this nearly Greek tragedy proves compelling watching. Children are children, and so much of what this 19th century play says about humanity rings with a core of truth that young people flock to the piece out of recognition, if only of the darker parts of themselves. That is, if it is done as well as it is in La Mirada they do.

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

Austin MacPhee, as Melchior,leads the cast of Spring Awakenings in La Mirada

This production is blessed with a young and vibrant cast, and an aura of total commitment to every moment on the stage. Austin MacPhee helps lead the cast as Melchior, a bright, independent thinker who believes society can grow, and researches things he wants to know which adults won’t share. MacPhee balances well Melchior’s intellect and youthful impulsiveness, setting a tone for the plot line. Micaela Martinez is Wendla, Melchior’s love interest, radiating trust and a kind of inborn innocence even as she vibrates frustration with an adult world more brutal and closed than she had realized. These two define a particular tenderness which underscores the lack of it in those adults around them.

Coby Getzug creates a memorable Moritz, the boy swept away by his own physical changes, yet crumbling under the pressures of a strict academic code he cannot keep up with. Michael Rothhaar gives the severity (and occasionally, the underlying, societally controlled pathos) to the adult men the children encounter. Linda Kerns handles the powerless empathy (and occasionally, objectification-as-power motif) of the adult women. Surrounding these performers are a large chorus of young men and women, each a distinctively interesting, if usually minor part of the storyline.

Brian Kite’s direction has emphasized the intimacy of the piece, and its almost dangerous energy. The close-up nature of the performers, on this new stage format which Kite has helped to develop at La Mirada, highlights the humanity of the thing. Cheers also for Dana Solimando’s in-your-face choreography, and Rich Rose’s simple but evocative set. Indeed, the only fault to be found comes from the uncredited costuming, as Wendla’s dress proves far less period than that of all the other girls onstage, negating much of the critique her mother makes of her first, forbidden outfit.

One word of warning to some: this is a very adult piece which includes sexual situations and a few moments of partial nudity. They are endemic to the story, and make perfect sense but, as a friend once announced before a performance, those who will be offended by the content of this production will be offended by the content of this production.

But don’t be. This musical has and will continue to mark an important moment in modern theatrical history, when a new generation learned that an old form of theater was speaking directly to them. That it does so using as core a play which was written (and banned) over a century ago says even more about the universality of its themes. One can go and, to some extent, rediscover that youthful angst which so defines everyone’s memories of that time of life.

What: “Spring Awakening” When: Through March 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friay, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Saturday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or

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