Smells Like Teen Spirit

Is it just me, or is the Eugene theater scene undergoing something of an ascendance these days? Is there a minor renaissance of the dramatic arts going on in our midst? Could it be that, along with the hip, new vitality of our downtown, pushing out decades of apocalyptic slouch and economic zombification, this city is also experiencing a similar surge in creative endeavors and the venues that host them?

The reason for this reverie is the happy glow I’m still experiencing after attending the April 25 opening night performance of University Theatre’s fantastic production of Spring Awakening, the 2006 rock musical based on the controversial 1891 play by German writer Frank Wedekind. Hats off to UO on this one, and a special nod to director John Schmor. Schmor, who heads the school’s theater arts program, reveals an admirable level of artistic courage in bringing this timeless story of teenage sex and death to the stage.

Schmor is aided and abetted by a talented cast that shows unflinching passion and professionalism in portraying the ravaged forms of teenaged vulnerability, from mopey suicides and incest victims to atheistic punks and coming-out homosexuals. TJ LaGrow and Kelley Young are riveting as Melchior and Wendla, the star-crossed lovers whose sexual explorations are tender and doomed, and Thomas Varga hits just the right note as Moritz, the play’s Hamlet, a young man haunted by the advent of adult life in all its contradictory complexity. And these actors are not alone; each performer hits the mark, creating an ensemble vibe that crackles with the edgy existential radiance, equal parts agony and ecstasy, that accompanies the pains of growing up — a sometimes deadly game.

The real triumph of this production is the music. The songs, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, are smart and catchy (no small feat for a rock musical), and a live band adds an appropriate sense of urgency to the teenage wasteland on stage. Despite a few sound glitches having to do with uneven amplification, the vocal performances were spot-on. “Totally Fucked,” a rollicking anthem to adolescent double binds, has the power to bring down the house, and almost did.

Confident, sophisticated and shot through with the angsty, hyper-sexualized haze of adolescent confusion, UT’s staging of Spring Awakening is a reminder of how good live theater can be, even — or especially — when it makes us squirm.

Spring Awakening runs through May 10 at the UO University Theatre; $14 students, staff, seniors, $16 general.

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