When it comes to understanding sexuality, abuse, abortion, and suicide, the nineteenth-century German youth of Spring Awakening are on their own. Wendla (Rachel Friedman) can’t get her mom to explain sex. Precocious Melchior (Eric Berry-Sandelin) critiques “parentalism” and tries to imagine the female orgasm. Moritz (Jake Boyce) agonizes over why he dreams of women’s stockings. We follow the trials of these and other teens in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s acclaimed rock-musical, a remake of Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 German play. Jamie Lupien Swenson directs an exceptional, vitally performed community theater production, at Lyric Music Theater.
Sater and Sheik’s reinvention of Spring Awakening won eight Tonys, and it deserves the laurels. Score and lyrics are smartly and gorgeously interwoven: listen as the violin bends in counterpoint with the singers’ voices, or as the boys’ rhythmic Latin recitations punctuate Melchior singing about the limits of conventional knowledge. Lyrics themselves are refreshingly oblique, poetic, and full of leaps, and juxtapositions of music and word are surprising, as when a sweetly major resolution accompanies Melchior and Wendla’s tender but ambivalent refrain, “You’re gonna be my bruise.”
Lyric’s production team pulls all this off with fierce intelligence, skill, and sensitivity. The five-piece orchestra, directed by Bob Gauthier, performs vividly and with such color that the score seems a genuinely internal voice of the characters. And the young ensemble vibrantly embodies the dual innocence and experience of adolescence. The girls’ modest dresses, skipping and braids, the boys’ school uniforms and buffoonery, juxtapose sharply with the raw pop-rock anguish and desire of their songs.
Berry-Sandelin’s fine Melchior, by turns earnest and wry, has the weariness of one who understands more than those in power. His Melchior has a level, knowing gaze, in contrast with his friend Moritz, whom the engaging Boyce plays as frenzied, wide-eyed and dramatic. As Wendla, falling for Melchior, Friedman mingles innocence and sensual knowledge, at once enchanting and aching. Her Wendla is captivating as she reacts to the revelation of Martha (Alyssa Rojecki, wrenchingly) that her father beats her: Wendla sits shuddering and flushed, at once appalled and, without quite knowing it, aroused.
Movements and gestures are by turns stylized and affectingly subtle. As an alarm sound pulses and the light washes red, the boys slap their school slates against their laps and throw their arms into lurid gestures; in the song “Touch Me,” boys and girls physicalize sexual rapture in underwater undulations. There is much to watch in faces alone: Hanschen smiles with tender amusement as Ernst (Ricky Brewster) describes his fantasies of being a country pastor, then his smile turns sensual and sly as he describes his own m.o. of “skimming the cream.” After their first kiss, the two look at each other with lovely, amazed candor and delight.
All of the adults around these teens — parents, teachers, priests, doctors — are played by just two actors, Lynn C. Borer-McKellar and Mark E. Dils, both excellent. Swenson wisely directs them to portray the grown-ups as not monstrous but simply callous, clueless or cowed by convention or their own hang-ups. Their realism heightens the horror when the teenagers’ fates go wrong.
Which some do — tragically, needlessly. But the play also honors young people’s capacity to endure, to synthesize their tragedies into resolutions about the adults they’ll choose to be. Lyric’s arresting Spring Awakening presents a bravely articulate anthem for the young and a warning for the rest of us: as treacherous as forgetting history is forgetting our own youth.
Spring Awakening | Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Jamie Lupien Swenson | Through April 2 | Lyric Music Theater, 176 Sawyer Rd., South Portland | $19-23 | www.lyricmusictheater.org.
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