Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: “SPRING AWAKENING” at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse CLOSES SUNDAY

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday July 12, 2012 - 11:38:00 PM
Brendon North as Melichior
Patrick Tracy
Brendon North as Melichior

Director Fred Chacon is to be congratulated for assembling a cast of highly talented young actors and singers who believably resemble the teenage characters in the Tony Winning “SPRING AWAKENING” at Altarena. When this musical is produced, usually the actors look like they are in their twenties. 

Altarena Playhouse Artistic Director Chacon’s choice to produce this piece was ballsy: controversial subject matters of teenage angst over sex and school. It contains a real, passionate kiss between men, scenes of simulated masturbation and fornication, all expressed in rock songs. As Chacon said in his pre-show intro, this is not a show for those who voted for Rick Santorum.  

I saw it in NYC, and thisproduction holds up well by comparison. It is performed on a bare stage with just chairs, just like the Broadway version. 

Chacon also was lucky and smart to enlist choreographer Christina Lazo who has a whole lot of talent and perhaps a future. Her complicated intertwined marching, her stomping choreography, and her “body-discovery” modern dance mirror the roller-coaster of rage, confusion, and hormones that is the human condition when breaking through to sexual maturity. At one point, she has the students stomp high in place and throw their hand up as if to get the instructor’s attention, but it is eerily reminiscent of the goose-step and the “Heil” that they might live to see. It is in her frenzied, agitated dance moves that we most clearly connect with the adolescent free-fall. 

Music director Dean Starnes’s on-stage ensemble of cello, synthesizer, guitar, bass, and percussion are in synch with the performers and some solos are quite impressive. During the first act I had a hard time understanding the amplified lyrics, but the problem was solved in the second act. Cary Litchford’s vocal direction used the falsettos well, and brought out some nice tones from the young performers. 

If you haven’t seen “SPRING AWAKENING”, they use microphones—both “body mics” and wireless, handheld mics like rock singers use. This bothers some folks, and my companion questioned why they would use both. We discussed the aesthetics of it. I conjectured that it was to draw in a younger audience; everybody has rock star fantasies. Then we considered the idea that it is an “expressionistic” device—it shows what is going on inside them emotionally, while separating them from the activity that surrounds them. That could have been helped with isolating light. 

There is a stand-out among the cast: Brendon North who plays golden-boy and rebel Melchior is a gifted singer with angelic, magnetic features who can really act. He rips out our hearts every time he pouts or speaks.  

Shauna Shoptaw and Charles Evans play all the overweening adults while showing the fragility behind their mask. 

Wendla, played by Riley Krull, a grad of the prestigious Boston Conservatory, has a gorgeous and controlled voice. Her image presents a perfect Teutonic naïf, innocent, confused, and desperate for info on the bird and the bees. Her expression consistently childlike and submissive; perhaps a more nuanced, approach might have evoked more audience empathy. (Lea Michele (from “Glee”) played the role on Broadway.) 

It is a delightful undertaking that raises further the ever-rising bar at community theaters. 

That having been said… 

There is a lack of urgency to the play. Remember when you were a teenager and everything was a crisis? One does not feel the tension that the characters’ world is about to go to hell—and their world does in so many ways. 

The “sacrifice” character is Moritz who is flunking out and consumed by sexual fantasies and ignorance. His parental rejection at his failure and access to firearms puts him at risk for suicide. Moritz is played by Max Thorne who looks the part and is a performer with pizzazz. However, there is not the needed vulnerability about him in his characterization. Perhaps his performing confidence and frenetic energy lessens our belief that he is a weakling who we should worry about. His character is the third leg of the central trio of Melchior/Wendla/Moritz, and this leg wobbles.  

It is a difficult balance not to wilt the budding flower by over-directing, but a stronger hand and a sharper vision could have made this an award-winning production. 

Chacon allows some sex scenes to be played for laughs, which defuses them. It does not make us remember and feel the pain of such humiliations as interrupted masturbation or the trauma and fantasy of attraction to one’s mature buxom piano teacher. The circle-jerk at the reformatory is given short-shrift, too. The simulated fornication is sweetly child-like and less than furiously passionate. The “body awareness” self-touching as choreographed by Lazo is done perfunctorily and thus desexualized. Wendla’s fate at the abortionist is zipped through.  

The musical is based on the play “Spring Awakening” (Frühlings Erwachen,” subtitled Eine Kindertragödie) which was first produced in Germany in 1906 by the great Max Reinhardt. It was written by Frank Wedekind (Benjamin Franklin Wedekind!) who was conceived in Oakland but born in Germany when his parents repatriated during his actress-mother’s pregnancy. “Spring Awakening” was produced in NYC during the First World War and won an obscenity battle in the courts. It is a highly symbolic play, a cry against the sexually-oppressive culture of 19th century Germany, and a precursor to Expressionism. Though Wedekind instituted the tradition of satire in German theatre (after spending nine-months in jail for another satirical poem), there is hardly a laugh in this play, and it rips your heart out. (I remember writing a 40-page paper on it for my master’s degree.) There was a Zeitgeist of sexual awareness, if not sexual revolution, for the next two decades in Europe—from Freud’s writings to the “voluptuous panic” of the Weimar Republic. 

I pretty much hate most of the music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, regardless of the awards. It’s that insipid drivel that passes for rock among our modern clueless youth …this curmudgeon snarled in his dotage. For the most part, the lyrics of the slower songs are neither witty nor particularly poetic nor emotionally evocative. But I do like the rebellious “emo” selections that derive from hardcore punk such as “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” etc. 

AND---that having been said… 

…it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s about 15-20 minutes from Oakland/Berkeley down 880 across the High Street Bridge. If you’ve never been there, it’s worth the trip, since they claim the title of “oldest continuous running community theatre” in these parts, and “Ambassador” Rick James and the free (donation requested) organic cookies are most welcoming. 


music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics & book by Steven Slater 

Directed by Frederick L. Chacon 

Playing through July 15 


Altarena Playhouse  

1409 High Street, Alameda CA or (510) 523-1553 


Musical director Dean Starnes, vocal director Cary Litchford, Choreographer Christina Lazo, lighting designer Kristie Leffler, stage manager Chris Ciabattoni. 


WITH: Sarah Birdsall, Nathan Brown, Nikita Burshteyn, Mackenzie Cala, Caleb Haven Draper, Jordan Dong, 

Charles Evans, Riley Krull, Brendon North, Katie Robbins, Shauna Shoptaw, Steve Sloan, Kristina Stasi, Max Thorne 


John A. McMullen II is a member of SF Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. EJ Dunne edits.