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'Spring Awakening' gives a kick to new Zach season

Claire Canavan

In 2006, Zach Theatre's artistic director, Dave Steakley, sat inside a converted church in New York City, waiting to see the Atlantic Theater Company's off-Broadway production of a new musical called "Spring Awakening."

He wasn't disappointed. The energetic rock musical about teenagers felt to Steakley like "a fresh discovery." As a bonus, Steakley was seated rows away from famed musical composer Stephen Sondheim, who he says looked to be having "a spectacular time."

The musical "Spring Awakening" is based on German writer Frank Wedekind's play of the same name, published in 1891. The show's frank depiction of teenage sexuality (and its critique of societal repression) scandalized the public, and the show was not actually produced until 15 years after it was first written.

For a modern update, lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik channeled the raw energy and adolescent angst of the play into a series of rock songs that make up the hard-driving score.

The version of "Spring Awakening" that Steakley saw eventually transferred to Broadway and won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including best musical. (It also starred the now famous Lea Michele of television's hit show "Glee.")

When choosing a show to open Zach Theatre's 2011-2012 season, Steakley picked "Spring Awakening" because of what he calls its "newness and vitality." He also sees the show, with its contemporary rock soundtrack, as a link to Austin's live music scene.

To direct Zach Theatre's production, opening Sept. 21, Steakley recruited Michael Baron, the artistic director of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma.

Baron had seen the same off-Broadway version as Steakley and says he knew immediately that it was special. "It was edgy," he says. "The music was not typical theater music."

For the production at Zach, Baron wanted to work with performers who were the same age as the characters in the play, so he cast several people who are still in high school.

"The kids in the show are just going through adolescence and puberty, so it's heartbreaking and funny and wonderful to see the real kids in these roles," he says.

Their voices also have a unique sound. "They don't necessarily have that clean musical theater sound," Baron says. "They have more of an indie rock sound, a current sound."

Though young, the cast members are not completely new to theater. Baron says they've all had experience and are "fearless at expressing their voices through song."

Baron admires many adaptations made for the musical — the distillation of dozens of characters into a smaller cast, a juicier sense of drama — but he also wants to return to some elements he loved about the original play.

To do that, he collaborated with set designer Michael Raiford on a design that hides all the modern technology until just the right moment. Baron says the play will be faithful to its time period (the 1890s) until the actors break out into song and "express themselves as kids do now."

Choreographer Andrea Beckham is teaching the cast movement grounded in modern dance. Baron says Beckham's choreography will bring a fresh twist to the piece as it differs greatly from the Broadway version. It's also collaborative — Beckham led the cast through exercises to see how the actors moved on their own and will incorporate their gestures into the show.

Though the original play is more than 100 years old, "Spring Awakening" still manages to shock and provoke audiences with its no-holds-barred exploration of adolescent yearning and rebellion.

So far, Baron is pleased with how his young cast is handling the challenging material. He coaches them to just focus on telling the story.

"When issues of suicide, sex and abortion come up, I tell them that we don't have to frame it in a certain way," he says. "We just need to play the scene because it resonates."

'Spring Awakening'

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 13

Where: Zach Theatre, Kleberg Stage, S. Lamar Blvd. and W. Riverside Dr.

Cost: $35-$55

Info:www.zachtheatre.org.