On Theater:

It may be set in the provincial Germany of the late 19th century, but “Spring Awakening,” the production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, outpaces “Rent” in pure power and passion.

This multiple Tony award winner by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik — based on an 1890 play by Frank Wedekind — comes at its audience loaded for bear, its intimacy shared with a few fortunate audience members seated on stage.

Youthful passion, often discovered while writhing under the thumb of a repressive society, is the theme of this deeply involving and tragically dramatic musical.

While some of the show may be extraneous, and the ensemble’s vocalizing is occasionally drowned out by the onstage orchestra, it nevertheless transcends its obligatory melodrama to touch the heart and disturb the senses.

Under Michael Mayer’s dynamic direction and the intricate choreographic touches of Bill T. Jones, “Spring Awakening” certainly will awaken — and occasionally unsettle — its audiences, most of whom should be of voting age. Leave the kiddies home for this one, folks.

Melchoir (Jake Epstein) is a young man ostensibly going places, both in academics and life. The young ladies all covet him and one (Christy Altomare) connects with him in an eyebrow-raising, graphically executed first act closing scene. Both performers excel dramatically and vocally with Epstein particularly commanding.

Melchoir’s best friend, Moritz (Taylor Trensch), isn’t so fortunate. He’s a loser in school and life, and a disappointment to his stern father. His prospective romantic interest (Steffi D) is willing, but he’s unable, emotionally, leading to dire consequences.

There’s even a superfluous homosexual discovery sequence between two minor characters — neither of whom are preeminent to the story either before or afterward — which apparently is included purely for shock value. It doesn’t carry the intended dramatic weight, though it does continue the coming-of-age theme.

Two older performers — John Wojda and Angela Reed — enact all the adults in the show, and do so tremendously. Both are excellent as the stern, unbending authority figures, with Reed impressing particularly as Melchoir’s seductive mother who stirs his buddy’s inner juices. Wojda takes fearsome dominance to a new level as various teachers and parents.

Musically, under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby, “Spring Awakening” rattles the chandeliers. The most powerful ensemble number (whose title can’t be revealed in a family newspaper) drew sustained applause on opening night.

What “Spring Awakening” seems to be telling us, unsurprisingly, is that the same desires, uncertainties and hormonal alterations transpiring in the souls of today’s teenagers also were present, if more repressed, more than a century ago. Authority figures are the true villains here.

It’s a morality play which, over a century, has evolved into a powerful musical with today’s unrestricted standards, yet remaining in its original time and place. The combination is incendiary.

If You Go

What: “Spring Awakening”

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Nov. 29

Cost: $20 to $80

Call: (714) 556-2787

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

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