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'SPRING AWAKENING' Is a Rockin' Journey of Passion & Neon

It is difficult to explain the kind of musical SPRING AWAKENING is.  On the one hand, you have Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 source material: a German play vocalizing the inner wonders and hidden desires of undereducated teens falling into their own high school niche.  Territory quite familiar and quite universal to audience members of any age.  They are loners, nerds, followers, troubled souls, and confused minds.  And on the other hand, you have composer Duncan Sheik's pop-rock infused Tony Award winning score and a flashy Broadway mentality.  Sheik, most famously known to '90's radio listeners as the "Barely Breathing" crooner, has complied a slew of hauntingly beautiful songs that catapult the audience into the minds of a teens who want nothing more than to understand and belong.  This makes for an intriguing boy-speaks-in-Latin, boy-meets-girl, boy-pulls-out-a-handheld-microphone-from-his-1891-period-costume type story.  We've seen it hundreds of times.

SPRING AWAKENING, running now through August 16 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre, offers the best all-around crafted tour to hit Chicago since JERSEY BOYS' initial stop at the Shubert opps La Salle Bank opps! Bank of America Theatre in 2007.  Each of SPRING AWAKENING's eight technical and creative Tony Awards scream "HERE I AM, DEAL WITH IT!" with well-deserved gusto.  Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones repeat their award-winning roles for SPRING's tour, creating a surreally realistic world of explosive angst, sensual exploration, and juvenile exuberance.  Mayer's pacing shifts effortlessly from girlish gossiping (between Gabrielle Garza, Sarah Hunt, and Claire Sparks) to boyish "locker room banter" (amongst Anthony Lee Medina, Andy Mientus, Ben Moss, & Matt Shingledecker).  While balancing Jones' ethereal choreography and Sheik's melodies, each company member gets shine in the literal rock 'n roll spotlight, a feat not normally reached in a traditional Broadway musical.

Jake Epstein and Broadway hold-over Blake Bashoff are quite strong as Melchior and Moritz, but the angelically voiced Christy Altomare shines as the important, yet underwritten, Wendla.  Many kudos, too, go to crowd favorites Moss and Mientus for their touchingly poignant and comical reprise, "The Word of Your Body."  And thanks to the artistic collaboration between lighting designer Kevin Adams and set designer Christine Jones, there are moments of utter beauty and joy during the melodic "The Mirror-Blue Night" and the jubilant "Totally F****d."  Some of the most gorgeous stage pictures imaginable are created with nothing more than light bulbs, neon strips, and four pieces of rope.  The results are startling.

The one pitfall in SPRING AWAKENING's success is the book itself.  Steven Sater's adaptation of Wedekind's play occasionally veers on the sophomoric, never fully living up to the modern and lively world created around it -a world illuminated perfectly by Tony Award winner Adams. The actors are trapped between "Mamma, where do babies come from?" dialogue and full-out rock performances.  It is pretty close as it is, but if the two worlds could meet cohesively somewhere in the middle, SPRING AWAKENING would be damn near perfect.

Broadway In Chicago warns SPRING is "a powerful coming of age story with mature themes: sexual situations, partial nudity and strong language," but if you want to chalk up major Coolest Parent of the Summer points, bring your teenagers to see this show!  With gratuitous R-rated horror films, reality programming, and mindless tweeney bopper fluff all the rage, teens and adults alike deserve to experience SPRING AWAKENING's theatrically thrilling rock-based heart.

*** And becau$e time$ are tough and everyone enjoy$ a good bargain:
$25 tickets at the Oriental box office only (24 W. Randolph). Student rush tickets will be available 2 hours prior to each performance. You must show a current student ID to purchase tickets. Tickets are cash only and there is a limit of two per person. ***

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From This Author William Panek