Review: “Spring Awakening” in Novato

Totally fucked.

That, dear readers, sums up the teen angst expressed via song in Spring Awakening, Marin Musical Theatre Company’s latest offering. It runs at the NTC Playhouse in Novato through March 16.

Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play that dealt frankly with teenage sexuality, playwright Steven Sater and musician Duncan Sheik collaborated on a musical adaptation in 2006 that took Broadway by storm and received eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

It’s 1891 and the young citizens of a provincial German town are dealing with oblivious and abusive parents and cruel schoolmasters. Wedla (Claudia Shapiro) can’t get her mother to explain the facts of life. Moritz (Tyler Gable), an intense young man stressed out by scholastic pressures, has been having strange dreams and seeks counsel from his thoughtful friend Melchior (Ryan Hook). Melchior shares the knowledge of human sexuality he’s gleaned from books but Moritz stops him, asking him to write the information down – complete with illustrations. That pamphlet and Melchior’s relationship with Wendla will lead to complications.

Ryan Hook and Ensemble

Wedekind’s treatise against repression wasn’t performed until fifteen years after it was written and then either heavily censored or outright banned. The powers-that-be weren’t ready for a play dealing with teenagers to have explicit scenes involving masturbation (lots of masturbation), child abuse, sado-masochism, suicide, and sex of a questionably consensual nature – the play’s most controversial scene in this adaptation is unclear.

Director Jenny Boynton has a very good cast dealing with some exceptionally difficult material with Hook excellent as the inquisitive and rebellious Melchior. I wish Gable were a little less over-the-top as Moritz but he really scores in Moritz’s quieter, more reflective moments. A health issue led Claudia Shapiro to leave the role of Wendla at intermission on opening night and was replaced by Emily Dwyer. Both were impressive, and kudos to Director Boynton to have the foresight to have the role understudied.

Music director Jake Gale and a six piece band provide excellent support for the vocal work done in songs such as “The Bitch of Living”, “My Junk”, “The Word of  Your Body” and the aforementioned “Totally Fucked.” There’s some interesting dance work by Daniela Myers and Jennifer Daine, choreographed by Katie Wickes.

MMTC’s Spring Awakening is a terrific production designed to connect with younger, contemporary audiences on their terms and succeeds, gloriously. Theatre-goers expecting a teen musical along the lines of Bye, Bye, Birdie will be aghast.

Marin Musical Theatre Company’s ‘Spring Awakening’ runs through March 16 at the Novato Theater Company Playhouse,  5420 Nave Drive, Ste. C, Novato. Friday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm;Sat, Mar. 16, 2pm. $27–$50. 800.838.3006. marinmusicals.org.

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the Pacific Sun.

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