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Spring Awakening at Griffin Theatre

Published on 6th December 2011

★★★★☆

Griffin Theatre. Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Dir. Jonathan Berry. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.

In its first Chicago-born production, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s electrified update of Frank Wedekind’s 19th-century play retains the honesty and energy that make it such a successful portrait of timeless teen angst. The musical nimbly hops between the 1891 book scenes, in which mostly unsympathetic adults (played by Vanessa Greenway and Larry Baldacci) keep their teen German charges naive and in line, and the modern-rock songs, in which those same teens release their frustrations in very contemporary language.

Griffin’s production replicates Michael Mayer’s Broadway premiere a little too closely. Director Jonathan Berry and associate director Jess McLeod reconfigure the action for a much more intimate space, to be sure. Set designer Marianna Csaszar uses an industrial feel and a runway configuration with the audience on three sides; the actors often enter among us. Where the Broadway production and its touring replica allowed some audience members the choice to sit onstage, here we’re all part of the action.

But then Nicole Pellegrino’s choreography, without plagiarizing Bill T. Jones’s original work, often suggests it. The young actors often physically evoke the Broadway cast, and moments in Berry and McLeod’s staging—such as the intertwined pose of lust-driven teens Melchior (Josh Salt) and Wendla (Aja Wiltshire) that ends Act I—seem taken verbatim.

The company has certainly done justice to the work; every actor in the young cast has a moment to excel. The talented Salt and Wiltshire feel like major discoveries, and Lindsay Leopold is stunning as pivotal tossed-out teen Ilse. If you want to catch the next generation of Chicago musical-theater talent, this is a good start to your awakening.—Kris Vire

Time Out Chicago issue no. 354, December 8–14, 2011