SPRING AWAKENING * Book and lyrics by Steven Sater * Music by Duncan Sheik * Choreographed by Bill T. Jones * Directed by Michael Mayer * Eugene O’Neill Theater, New York City (open-ended run).

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play Spring Awakening has been cheered and condemned since the day it was written because it deals frankly with pubescent sexuality, masturbation, abortion, incest, homosexuality, and emotional distress leading to suicide. Now pop songsmith Duncan Sheik, writer/lyricist Steven Sater, and director Michael Mayer have adapted the play into a smart, brilliantly staged musical that totally taps into the crazy, passionate energy of kids. The show, which played for three months last summer at Chelsea’s Atlantic Theater Company and re-opens December 10 on the Great White Way, pulls no punches in its depiction of teenage eroticism. Think of it as the Shortbus of Broadway.

Even though the story takes place in provincial Germany at the end of the 19th century, the theme of brainy, horny adolescents searching for answers in a sea of ignorance is both timeless and, in an era of abstinence-only sex education, absolutely contemporary. The show opens sparely and beautifully with a ballad, “Mama Who Bore Me,” sung by Wendla, the female lead (Lea Michele, a gorgeous and talented singer-actor who is destined to be a big star). Before you know it, all the schoolboy characters are introduced in a boisterous blast of hormones-on-parade called “The Bitch of Living,” stomping on every inch of the hardwood stage, including their chairs. Bill T. Jones’ choreography has the boys and girls compulsively running their hands all over their own bodies, making discoveries that simultaneously thrill and horrify them. In the script’s wittiest adaptation, all the parents and teachers are played by two actors, Christine Estabrook (of Desperate Housewives) and Stephen Spinella (Angels in America). 

Act two has its own rowdy roof-raiser, “Totally Fucked,” led by handsome Jonathan Groff as Melchior, the play’s tragic hero. But there are other memorably original tunes: “Don’t Do Sadness,” sung by Melchior’s tormented best friend Moritz (John Gallagher, who superbly channels Duncan Sheik by way of Elvis Costello); “The Dark I Know Well,” a lovely duet by two girls telling-without-telling about being molested by their fathers; and “My Junk,” in which Jonathan B. Wright as the aggressively gay Hanschen sits center- stage beating off under his nightshirt. 

But the most haunting number in the show is the twice-reprised “The Word of Your Body,” which contains the play’s deepest wisdom about adolescent sexual initiation: “O, I'm gonna be wounded/O, I’m gonna be your wound/O, I'm gonna bruise you/O, you’re gonna be my bruise.” 

Michael Mayer’s Brechtian staging is economical and highly theatrical. Everything happens in front of the audience. The songs alternate unpredictably between loud and soft, fast and slow; many end without demanding applause. Anyone who knows Duncan Sheik’s music (“Barely Breathing”) might expect a wistful, folkie score and some of it is, but it’s mostly good rock and roll. It’s as hip as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and it rocks like Rent, which Spring Awakening inevitably recalls, partly because the cast of excellent, quirky up-and-coming performers seem to be having the time of their lives doing the show.

The Advocate, December 19, 2006