The staging lives up to the rebellious heart of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 musical, which was adapted from German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play. Some technical hiccups and uneven vocals during Monday’s opening-night performance at times created the sense that this production had bitten off more than it could chew. But Paul ultimately wields his committed cast with an uncanny understanding of how to craft spectacle that lingers.
Set in late-19th-century Germany, “Spring Awakening” focuses on a collection of repressed teenagers roiling with sexual anguish. Cristina Sastre brings doe-eyed innocence to Wendla, yearning for answers about love, and her angelic voice shines on the opening ballad, “Mama Who Bore Me.” Evan Daves cuts a charismatic figure as the more sexually advanced Melchior, who engages in a confused romance with Wendla. And the devastating Sean Watkinson exudes adolescent agony as Melchior’s friend Moritz, a misfit grappling with suicidal thoughts.
Although Sarah Cubbage’s costumes are period-appropriate, this production is a thoroughly anachronistic affair, as evidenced by the bright highlights in the hair of several actors. That touch pairs with Sater and Sheik’s punk-rock-infused blend of rhythmic chants, haunting melodies and angsty headbangers. In an inspired flourish, Paul and lighting designer Colin K. Bills use neon bars of light to illuminate those numbers with explosions of color.
The audacious lighting works with Rigg’s turntable set and Paul McGill’s daring choreography to liven such songs as the provocative “Touch Me” and the troubling “The Dark I Know Well.” The ensemble-driven rockers such as “The Bitch of Living” are a blast, even when the orchestration overwhelms the vocals.
Although the young cast carries the show, Bobby Smith and Tonya Beckman steal scene after scene while playing all of the adult characters. As a conniving headmaster and schoolteacher, they deliver a riotous Boris and Natasha act that brings some much-needed levity to this cautionary tale, which delves into mental illness, domestic violence and abuses of authority.
Paul thankfully knows to rein in the grandeur while probing these topics, and he takes a tasteful approach to the deeply intimate Act 1 finale, “I Believe.” As Wendla and Melchior claim the forbidden fruit, as it were, the metaphor behind the Garden of Eden backdrop crystallizes. This “Spring Awakening” isn’t a religious experience, exactly, but it’s deserving of worship nonetheless.
Spring Awakening, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Alan Paul. Set, Adam Rigg; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; choreography, Paul McGill; props, Alex Wade; music direction, James Cunningham. With Chani Wereley, Kalen Robinson, Katie Rey Bogdan, Jane Bernhard, Christian Montgomery, James Mernin, Carson Collins and Michael J. Mainwaring. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $56-$95. Through Feb. 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. roundhousetheatre.org.