The turbulent emotions and burgeoning sexuality of adolescence, with all its confusion, frustration, fear and anxiety, are harnessed in “Spring Awakening,” a bold musical adaptation by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater of German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind’s landmark 1891 drama. Developed over the past few years in workshop presentations, planned productions that fell apart and then in a Lincoln Center concert last year, this strange and striking show gets an exciting staging at the Atlantic, marked by the seamless collaboration of director Michael Mayer, choreographer Bill T. Jones and an inventive design team.
With social conservatives continuing their efforts to limit the candor of sex education for minors, Wedekind’s provocative work retains its relevance and power to shock more than a century later. In a provincial German town in the 1890s, a group of 14-year-old schoolchildren lurch toward adulthood in a repressive environment of hypocritical authority figures who demand respect while supplying scant guidance to the kids as they struggle to grasp the enigmas of sexuality.
Subtitled “A Tragedy of Childhood,” the play includes a frank description of teen suicide and was arguably the first dramatic work to channel the perspective of teenagers. Its taboo-busting extends to teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, sadomasochism and masturbation. This is not a sanitized “Afterschool Special.”
Playwright Sater’s adaptation adheres to the broad contours of Wedekind’s drama, preserving the slightly stilted, formal language of the period. This approach provides an effective contrast with the acoustic pop-rock idiom (the singers use handheld mics) and contemporary language of the songs, which function as interior monologues articulating the kids’ otherwise inexpressible thoughts.
Sheik’s dreamy melodies seem unstructured by conventional musical theater standards, and Sater’s lyrics can tend toward the arcane. But there’s a cracked poetry in evidence that fits the material and the painful introspectiveness of adolescence, making the show’s youthful spirit feel sincere and heartfelt.
Only four full-time musicians are onstage (three on strings and guitars, the fourth on drums and percussion), while cast members Skylar Astin and Lauren Pritchard do occasional piano duty. But the sound is energized.
Principal characters are Melchior (Jonathan Groff), an atheistic radical who makes the girls swoon; his troubled friend Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), as terrified of academic failure and of disappointing his stern father (Frank Wood plays the adult males) as he is of the sleepless “sticky dreams” conjured by his nascent erotic imagination; and Wendla (Lea Michele), whose fixation with death is somewhat muted here but whose desire to feel something feeds an urge to experience physical pain.
The prevailing false morality and their ignorance of sex are causes of grief for both Moritz and Wendla. Moritz turns to Melchior for illumination but is too fearful of the subject even to listen, asking his friend to write an illustrated essay. Wendla’s prudish mother (Mary McCann fills the adult women’s roles) tells her only that babies come from a husband and wife’s love, leaving her daughter unprepared for sexual initiation with Melchior.
Designer Christine Jones has devised an ingenious set piece for this key plot development in a hayloft: Four boys attach ropes to a rectangular central section hoisted above the wooden platform that serves as the playing stage. As the ramifications of that scene play out with tragic results for Wendla, and as Moritz’s suicide leads to the discovery of Melchior’s sex pamphlet, his consequent expulsion and confinement in a reformatory, Melchior observes the grim action with unblinking attention from a chair suspended on the back wall.
The most significant departure from Wedekind’s text (and from past presentations of the musical) is the excision from the final graveyard scene of the Masked Man, who persuades suicidal fugitive Melchior to embrace life. That Goethean, expressionistic character previously sang the moving “Left Behind” over Moritz’s funeral, which now falls to Melchior.
This musical is the first staged at the Atlantic, and it benefits immeasurably from the creatives’ imaginative, highly theatrical use of the space. In an inspired stroke, the central platform is flanked with rows of onstage audience seating. Going for $10 each, these seats tend to attract student-age theatergoers. As the ensemble — outfitted in costumer Susan Hilferty’s astutely unfussy period garb — drift in and out of these areas, the connection between past and present is further cemented.
The show’s other indispensable design contribution is Kevin Adams’ expressive lighting, painting a rich canvas of color and shadow, using fluorescent tubes and hanging bulbs as well as more traditional spots and spilling into the house to give the effect of an environmental production.
But the most arresting element is inarguably the collaboration of Mayer and Jones in a show driven by movement both contemplated and viscerally spontaneous. The cast’s convulsive quasi-voguing in the stirring angst anthem “Totally Fucked” gives way to a wild explosion of running and dancing in the most invigorating display, but the choreography is perhaps even more beautiful in its more subtle, processional variations.
Michele, Groff and Gallagher dominate the young ensemble, the latter’s haunted look enhanced by his “Eraserhead”-style nest of hair. Lilli Cooper and Pritchard do affecting work on “The Dark I Know Well,” an unsettling account of the characters’ experiences with abusive fathers, while Jonathan B. Wright and Gideon Glick are amusing as fledgling gay lovers on opposite ends of the confidence spectrum.
Cast features some distinctly Teutonic-looking faces that seem to belong to another time, especially the boys. That aspect and others fuel the sense here of a fascinating collision between the 19th and the 21st centuries.