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Arts & Entertainment - March 1, 2013

An anthem for life

'Spring Awakening' rocks out at Foothill

by Jeanie K. Smith

When Steven Sater (book) and Duncan Sheik (music) took a controversial play from the 1890s and turned it into a musical in 2006, everyone was surprised at how relevant the material remained, and how perfect it turned out to be to retrofit it with high-energy rock music and heartfelt contemporary ballads.

"Spring Awakening," the play by Frank Wedekind, brings into sharp relief what it was like growing up in a provincial German town in the late 19th century. Teens contended with overbearing or abusive parents, a repressive and punitive school system and social taboos that forbade any discussion of sex, while dealing with their own puberty, sexual fantasies and desire. Banned from performance in its own day, the play was widely read by intellectuals but not put on stage in uncensored form until much later. The musical version retains the controversial material, and garnered eight Tonys, including Best Musical.

Rock musicals such as "Rent" and "American Idiot" speak particularly to the young, but don't count them out if you're over 30. Wear earplugs if you must, but find the time to take in the representative of this new phenomenon currently on stage at Foothill College.

The book follows the stories of hapless teens as they grapple with coming of age in restrictive times: Melchior (Jason Rehklau), a bright student who insists on knowing and sharing the truth; Wendla (Juliana Lustenader), naive and curious, bent on discovering the truth of her own body and the mysteries of love; Moritz (Ryan Mardesich), who can't concentrate on school because of distracting fantasies; Ilse (Casey Ellis), banned from regular society because of her supposedly scandalous behavior; two boys discovering their illicit attraction for each other (Dillon Mena and Brandon Leland); Martha (Holly Smolik), confessing the abuse she suffers nightly; and many more.

All the adult roles are played by just two actors (Caitlin Lawrence Papp and Justin Karr), which effectively turns adults into clear stereotypes, voices of oppression and hypocrisy that the youth must prevail against in order to survive and try to be who they want. Even the seemingly sympathetic adults prove unable to rise above their own repression to help their children.

Inevitably, worlds collide and tragedies happen, but the show isn't unremittingly bleak — there's much humor and tenderness, too. Perhaps "older" audience members will even be reminded of their own first awakening to love and sexuality, or recall the intensity of passion endemic to youth.

Foothill's version is lively enough to give the show a good airing, and the ensemble of young actors is talented and well-voiced, definitely one of the best reasons for seeing the show. Rehklau and Lustenader are especially good at bringing their characters to life and delivering beautiful solos or duets. Mardesich suitably brings rock-star angst to Moritz, and endears us to him in touching scenes with Rehklau and Ellis. Smolik and Ellis blend voices well as they bond in a searing duet. Other standouts include Carissa McElravy as Thea, and Papp and Karr as the less-than-admired adults.

There are some exciting numbers in the show, including "The Bitch of Living" and "I Believe" in Act One, and "Don't Do Sadness" and "Totally F****d" in Act Two. All of these shine with energy and excellent choreography.

A few other numbers, particularly ballads, seem oddly static, lapsing into a kind of "stand and deliver" staging. Perhaps because of this — or perhaps because there are more ballads — the show loses some energy in the second half. The actors are apparently miked, as is the common convention for musicals, but it's still sometimes difficult to hear them over the amplified band.

Still, this is a worthwhile rendering of a justifiably popular new musical; whether you've seen it numerous times or never before, you'll be sure to enjoy Foothill's production and seeing what all the raves are all about.

Note: "Spring Awakening" contains mature themes, sexual situations, partial nudity and strong language.


"Spring Awakening," with book by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, presented by Foothill Music Theatre and Foothill Music Arts at Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Through Mar. 10, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $28. Go to or call 650-949-7360.


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