Strange Bedfellows Join for Spring Awakening

As usual, the summer theater season here is a vast, parched desert. Tried-and-true retreads are again the June and July standard: Hale Centre Theatre is doing To Kill a Mockingbird; Desert Stages is trotting out And Then There Were None. A Herberger remount of Ben Tyler's charming The Wallace and Ladmo Show, a co-production of Actors Theater and Desert Foothills Theater, might be our big summer stock news, were it not for another, more unusual collaboration.

Nearly Naked Theatre, arguably our most radical company, is collaborating this month on a production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening with Phoenix Theatre, inarguably the Valley's most conventional Equity house. This Tony-winning rock musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's controversial 19th-century German play is precisely the type of sexy stuff that put Nearly Naked on the map — and a far cry from the tamer, more family-friendly fare that PT typically presents.

But the august company has made no attempt to tame Sheik and Sater's steamy story about the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers in a small German village, according to Nearly Naked artistic director Damon Dering. "I wanted to make sure it was as provocative on stage as it is on the page," Dering insists, "and that I wouldn't be asked to make compromises to the material. Phoenix Theatre has been great, and the production is going to be as shocking and profound as it was on Broadway — only sexier. I'm a very sexual artist, and Phoenix Theatre has been great about letting me bring that to this work."

The companies had wanted to collaborate for some time and had talked about opening PT's new playhouse next year with a production of Joe DiPietro's The Toxic Avenger, a rock musical about a hero who gets his powers from a toxic waste dump in New Jersey. Meantime, both companies were interested in Spring Awakening. "But we couldn't afford the rights," recalls Dering, who's co-directing the production with PT's Robert Kolby Harper, "and PT wasn't sure they could sell it to their subscriber base."

The play isn't part of PT's season; it's being presented as an additional show, tacked on as a bonus for subscribers. It's a wise marketing move, one that may bring a younger, hipper audience to the 92-year-old playhouse, which has been inching toward more adventurous material (Nine, Avenue Q) these past few seasons.

Likewise, collaborating with an Equity house is an important "next step" for Nearly Naked, which has been a resident in PT's little theater for several years. "It's pretty thrilling to be working with this kind of production values," Dering says. "Humbling, too. Last night was our first night on the set, and I just walked around staring at how big everything was."

Dering is tightening up his company's 14th season, which launches shortly after Spring Awakening closes. He's planning to do David Nehl's Great American Trailer Park Musical, and is considering a new production of William Finn's Falsettos, which has never had a decent production here.

But first, there's Spring Awakening. "It's a great opportunity for theater and theater audiences to do a little growing here," Dering says. "It's terrifying and intimidating and exciting. And we're ready."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela