Wash. U.'s Spring Awakening lays bare the awkwardness of adolescence

The cast of Spring Awakening.
The cast of Spring Awakening.

The story is set in rural Germany in 1891, back when students were obliged to wear suits and ties. Although the school uniforms we see onstage are more constricting than the equally obligatory North Face garb worn by the students in the Edison Theatre audience, Spring Awakening is not about wardrobe. This aptly named musical is about the shock of discovery — the first time you failed a class, the first time you were physically abused by an adult, the first time you engaged in the act of love. Forget 1891 and Germany. As it chronicles a litany of shames and sins, the timeless Spring Awakening is as immediate as yesterday.

Hasn't every teenager experienced the private humiliation of not fully understanding how life works? So we hear references to genitalia, masturbation and wet dreams. Yet there's not a gratuitous moment in the entire evening. The show's early shock value soon morphs into an aching poignancy. The musical's common denominator, shared by onstage characters and audience members alike, is the universality of young confusion. The conceit here is that when the actors speak, they are in 19th-century Germany; when they sing, they are here and now. These songs do not advance the plot; instead they function as inner monologues. So we hear Wendla, our bewildered young heroine (the admirable Katie Greenberg) singing to herself about the mystery of her own body and her mother's refusal to explain the reproductive system. Moritz (the kinetic Adam Cohen) endures paroxysms of pain as he despairs over his academic inadequacies. The rebellious Melchior (Connor Dermuit) personifies the rebel as victim.

When Spring Awakening is not singing, the book scenes are sketchy. The various adult roles are played by the same two actors (one male, one female), perhaps to emphasize that all adults can seem equally oppressive and insensitive to kids. But then it's time for the next song, and once again the confusions of youth are rendered eloquent. These songs stroke the heart. The lyrics by (Washington University alum) Steven Sater, who also wrote the script, are artfully acute; the music by Duncan Sheik pierces the soul. Although Spring Awakening is described as a rock musical, the orchestra is mostly strings: cello, guitar, violin, viola, bass. Even in those moments when the lyrics are unclear, the sheer sound of the music is transporting.

Director Andrea Urice has made some savvy and pragmatic decisions. Lacking enough lighting equipment to duplicate the flashy rock-concert effect of the original 2006 Broadway production, Urice has lighting designer Sean M. Savoie bathe the stage in sympathetic colors. The subtle scenic design by Robert M. Morgan frames that stage with forest trees that do double duty as prison bars. And surely a conscious decision was made to garb schoolmate Ilse (the lovely Ariel Saul) as a free-spirited figure from the 1960s. When Ilse arrives like a breath of fresh air to sing the lush "Blue Wind," it's as if she is both anticipating and recalling Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.

Truth to tell, on opening night this student production, presented by the Washington University Performing Arts Department, got off to a tentative start. But at some imperceptible moment midway through the evening, the material took over and took off. By evening's end, secrets had been shared. A rare bond had been forged between performers and audience — and with that bond, the tacit understanding that Spring Awakening is an utterly original musical, a kind of tone poem that both reveals and reminds viewers of many of life's most traumatic passages. As the cast stood onstage singing "The Song of Purple Summer" for the finale, one of the unsung wonders was simply this: that a commercial Broadway musical could get feelings so right.