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Risk pays off for Marriott's 'Spring Awakening'

★ ★ ★ ½

Since Marriott Theatre announced its 41st season would begin with a limited run of "Spring Awakening," much has been written on how the musical about adolescents' sexual coming-of-age marked a departure for the Lincolnshire theater.

With its candid depiction of teenage sexuality, abuse, abortion and suicide and its explicit language, the R-rated "Spring Awakening" pushes the boundaries of the theater that, for 41 years, has served its 40,000 subscribers a diet of mainstream Broadway fare peppered with occasional new works.

Time will tell whether director/choreographer Aaron Thielen's three-week gamble pays off financially. Artistically it already has, especially musically. In fact, one of the most striking things about Thielen and music director Ryan T. Nelson's production is how pretty it sounds.

Much of the credit rests with this talented, young ensemble, and with the superb, rock-infused score that pairs Steven Sater's poignant, provocative book and lyrics with Duncan Sheik's haunting ballads and brawny anthems.

That said, some of the show's rougher, grittier edges sound as if they've been buffed out in Marriott's production, which features conductor Patti Garwood's septet relocated from behind a glass partition to the edge of the temporarily reconfigured stage.

That's not a bad thing. Not when it comes to the exquisite "The Word of Your Body" (a most authentic love song), or the seductive insistence of "I Believe," both of which benefit from the string accompaniment...

...Although it's inspired by Frank Wedekind's 1891 play and set during the same time period, the contemporary score and language make timeless this musical that chronicles teenagers struggling with their burgeoning sexual desires and the failure of their parents and other adults to properly guide them.

The rebellious Melchior (the dynamic Patrick Rooney, who resembles a young Ethan Hawke), a straight-A student and class heartthrob, doesn't need much guidance. He knows well the facts of life, and shares them with his friend, the awkward, unkempt Moritz (moving, memorable work by Barker), whose preoccupation with sex threatens his academic future. However limited their knowledge, they are better informed than Wendla (the winsome, sweet-voiced Eliza Palasz), whose mother is unwilling to answer her daughter's most basic questions, a mistake that proves fatal.

Orbiting around the trio is the outcast Ilse (Betsy Stewart) and young Martha (Adhana Cemone Reid), whose terrible secret Thielen depicts in a powerfully unsettling way. Charismatic Hanschen (Wheaton native Brian Bohr) is a master manipulator who targets Nick Graffagna's naive Ernst.

The masterful duo of Kevin Gudahl and Hollis Resnik play the adult roles. Each one -- from the enlightened albeit powerless mother to the disinterested, devastated dad -- is expertly realized.

Thielen's affection for the work is evident. His direction is both subtle and poignant. And there are moments -- bittersweet instances where a character reaches out to clasp the hand of another and falls short in the effort -- that are quite moving.

As he hinted in an interview with the Daily Herald last month, Thielen and set designer Thomas M. Ryan have re-imagined Marriott's space for the show, which unfolds on a stage configured from in-the-round to modified thrust. Surrounded on three sides by the audience, the cage-like set consists of metal pipes and wood platforms set against a blackboard backdrop, which also serves as a canvas for Anthony Churchill's revealing projections...'s effective, an ever-present reminder of society's constraints. But the cage doors opening at the conclusion of the glorious coda suggest something else: an invitation to move beyond the familiar into the unknown, where countless delights await those willing to break out of their comfort zone.