Being 15 years old can be oppressive. In Spring Awakening, a talented young cast stumbles through this age of sexual “awakening” in a provincial German town in the 1890s, long before sex-ed. or modern communicative parenting. Melchior (Jonathan Groff) is the brightest and most outspoken in his class of boys. Independent studies lead him to valuable information about human biology (specifically, the sex organs), which he shares with his classmates. As the rebel who “doesn’t believe in anything,” he makes the girls sigh and swoon, and inevitably, he shares more than just his knowledge with one of them. The ensuing tragedies, both in Melchior’s life and in the lives of supporting characters, stem from the boys’ isolation from information and explanation in the face of overwhelming physical urges.
Themes provide a neat structure, but the most exciting aspect of Awakening is the contrasting yet well-manicured combination of Duncan Sheik’s music, the expert direction of Michael Mayer, and the choreography of Bill T. Jones. Costumed in schoolboy short-suits with appropriately cartoonish hairstyles, the boys are kept distinct from the modestly dressed young girls. Visually, the kids could pass for what their parents wish them to be — unknowing, dutiful, and pious. But through Steven Sater’s modern lyrics, they tell a story of real suffering (rape, suicide), exploration (masturbation, homosexuality), and love (or at least lust). Many of the actors play their over-the-top Broadway characters in a refreshing way, but John Gallagher Jr., who is the lovable yet confused Moritz, really stands out. Spring Awakening is tightly refined and provides a visceral experience that certainly lives up to the hype.