There will be no snoozing in the mezzanine during “Spring Awakening,” the electrifying youthapalooza musical that’s taking over Atlanta’s Fox Theatre through Sunday, March 14. Some folks may choose to slip out quietly midway, as a few did on opening night, deciding this is not the Rodgers and Hammerstein they signed up for.
But dozing is not an option. After first taking Off-Broadway then Broadway by storm in 2006, winning eight Tony Awards and everything else they hand out, “Spring Awakening” has finally made it to Atlanta. It’s not for everyone — rock musicals with onstage sex, a suicide, an abortion and a song titled “Totally Fucked” rarely are — but it’s like a welcome boot to the ass end of the trend to make all new Broadway musicals based on either old movies or TV series.
The musical is based on an obscure 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind. With its candid views on sex, rebellion and the inner lives of adolescents, the Victorians couldn’t handle it and either shunned it or censored it; frankly, it still can be jarring in the way it peers into the jumbled thoughts and dreams of young people.
The show adds contemporary music by rocker Duncan Shiek and lyricist Steven Sater, a lot of it stunning, but the setting is still small-town Germany in the 1890s, where boys and girls are educated separately, and strictly. Much of how teenagers live has changed since then — headmasters don’t cane them any more for talking back. But so much more has remained exactly the same, especially that overwhelming desire to be initiated into the mysteries of sex and adulthood, and the equally overwhelming fear of the same, and that is what makes “Spring Awakening” so potent.
The play deals with sex as the primal, life-changing force that it is, rather than with the snickering leer that pervades so much of our modern pop culture. The first big blow-out in the show is “The Bitch of Living” — pictured above — a song about lust, masturbation and frustration, and the boys’ thrashing choreography is more mosh pit than de Mille.
A girl named Martha sings a haunting song about how her father is sexually abusing her, but no one in the play helps her. Most memorably, the awkward seduction and simulated but realistic sex scene between the teen hero, Melchior, and heroine, Wendla, that ends Act One feels like it pulls the oxygen from the audience; you can hear a couple of thousand people begin to breathe again when it’s over.
But it’s not just sex. These young people, trapped in a repressive society where teachers and parents leave no escape hatch, are questioning authority, politics, religion. They’re waking up to more than just their hormones; they’re awakening to the vast promise of the world outside of Latin class.
The national touring company is up to the tough demands of the show. Christy Altomare has a ravishing voice and presence as Wendla. (On Broadway, Lea Michele originated the role, then went on to star as Rachel in the Fox TV show “Glee.”) As Melchior’s tortured friend Moritz, Taylor Trensch is fantastic, looking like a 19th-century Eraserhead but stomping the stage like AC/DC’s Angus Young when he gets a solo. Jake Epstein, who usually plays Melchior on the tour, is on vacation this week and understudy Matt Shingledecker is stepping up; on opening night he started a bit wobbly but grew much stronger, until it no longer mattered that he was an understudy.
“I’m gonna bruise you, / You’re gonna be my bruise,” Melchior sings to Wendla, and the line is repeated later by other characters. That’s such a classic adolescent line, and “Spring Awakening” is a musical aimed mainly at adolescents — and those adults who have not forgotten that part of their soul. Despite its explicitness, I recommend it for high school students, although I can guarantee that parents and teens who watch it together are going to be deeply uncomfortable.