There are shows that let you know almost immediately that the night may be a satisfying knockout. Steve Cosson’s staging of “Spring Awakening,” currently drawing noticeably young and hip-looking crowds to the suburban Olney Theatre Center, is one of them.
It’s not that Cosson paints a radical new face on this popular rock musical of teen angst, a big Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2007. But from the moment Alyse Alan Louis steps forward to croon the brooding “Mama Who Bore Me,” the moody, exuberant music is captivating, the rock concert design is sleek and the young performers are coolly in charge.
Well, not always so coolly. “Spring Awakening” is a famously hot-blooded musical. It’s based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind drama about doomed, rebellious youths wanting to know about things (sex, please) that straitlaced adults can’t face.
The setting is 1890s Germany, but the hook of the show is that the sound is right now. Steven Sater’s book and lyrics are stiff and formal and then gleefully profane, and Duncan Sheik’s score (wonderfully rendered by musical director Christopher Youstra’s punchy ensemble, visible just offstage) features orchestral strings and electric guitars. The calculated stylistic mash-up makes it clear that some of the old repressions haven’t been bulldozed away quite yet.
Cosson, artistic director of the New York troupe the Civilians, directed the extraordinary “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” at Woolly Mammoth last year, and he makes taut, exciting work of “Spring Awakening” at Olney. The show follows several threads, the most pronounced being the budding, confused romance between Wendla and Melchior and the suicidal anguish of a boy named Moritz. Despite the high emotions and very grim events, the production almost never feels false.
The balanced, talented cast — a healthy-looking bunch, as dressed in flattering school uniform shorts and skirts by costume designer Sarah Beers — has a lot to do with that. The songs range from hormone-fueled eruptions to gorgeous melancholy ballads, and the actors plainly adore this music. They sound especially terrific in the choral numbers; there’s no chance you won’t leave the show humming the warm, infectious “The Song of Purple Summer.” The performers rip into the unbridled “Totally F-ed,” with its gloriously geeky choreography by Sam Pinkleton, yet display measured finesse and sensitivity with reflective tunes like “The Word of Your Body.”
Louis is magnetic as Wendla, the curious girl drawn to the thoughtful maverick Melchior (Matthew Kacergis). Louis and Kacergis capture the appealing tentativeness of their young characters, as does Maggie Donnelly, playing the intriguing young bohemian Ilse, and Parker Drown as the deeply troubled Moritz. Drown’s trembling performance is almost unbearably raw as the show — a good deal darker than such rock musical brethren as “Hair” and “Rent” — rolls inexorably toward its tragedies. If the show underlines too heavily anywhere, this may be the spot.
Practically everything else is smartly gauged, including the savvy performances of Liz Mamana and Ethan Watermeier as a gallery of adults. Adrian Jones’s set has some surprises in store after intermission, but for the most part it’s simply a flexible open area framed by thin rectangular arches that glow with rock and roll lighting (by Robert Wierzel) when the songs break out.
It’s hard to think of a musical that has looked or sounded so sharp lately at Olney. Even the applause Sunday night had a crisp edge — an undercurrent of a roar that you don’t often hear in Washington theater. It was well-earned.
Music by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Directed by Steve Cosson. Sound design, Will Pickens. With MaryLee Adams, Dayna Marie Quincy, Gracie Jones, Austin VanDyke Colby, David Landstrom, Chris Rudy, Christopher Mueller, Samuel Edgerly, Ali Hoxie, Katie McCreary and Tim Rogan. About two hours. Through March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.