Like an episode of Gossip Girl set in 19th-century Germany, Spring Awakening is a bit melodramatic — in the show's two-and-a-half hour run time, it broaches such hot-button topics as teen sex, homosexuality, sexual abuse, abortion, rape and suicide. There's even some nudity and simulated sex that closes out the first act. But what earned Duncan Sheik (the singer/songwriter of "Barely Breathing" fame) and Steven Sater's musical the 2007 Tony Award for Best Musical is its unexpected staging and score — a rarity in a Broadway landscape where revivals and other unoriginal works dominate — and the talented cast and directors in Theatre 13's production at Southern Rep augment the original show's finest qualities.
Sheik and Sater re-imagined German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1892 coming-of-age play — which was banned in his country — as a super-charged musical in which teens in woolen school uniforms and other high-collared 19th-century attire break out hand mics and unleash their inner tumult in soaring rock numbers. Choreographer Kelly Fouchi's sharp staging expresses that fury in first-act number "The Bitch of Living," in which a classroom of high school-aged boys, simultaneously aroused and tormented by the nascent sexuality their adult superiors refuse to address, erupt in head-banging and leaping from chairs. The second-act's "Totally F-cked" has the cast wildly thrashing in all corners of the theater. The rock music may seem out of place, but the songs are meant to serve as characters' inner monologues expressed in the timeless soundtrack of youth rebellion.
The show's perfectly cast group of young performers causes the production to eclipse any flaws in the material. Brett Barnes is pensive as Melchior, an intelligent student who learns about sex through books but fails in practical application, and his fresh pop voice carries several numbers. Jesse Quigley is a simmering ball of pent-up frustration in his portrayal of the deeply troubled Moritz, and Molly Ruben-Long brings wide-eyed naivete to Wendla, who is clumsily navigating her sexuality. Both Quigley and Ruben-Long have some shaky vocal parts — and their mournful songs are among the most difficult — but they are well suited for their respective roles and it's hard to fault them. Every cast member is featured at some point in the show: Ashley Rose Butler and Katie Mraz have stand-out vocal moments, Brian Paul Falgoust and Drew Arnold adeptly handle their comedic moments, and the other cast members shine on solos.
Mary Lee Gibbons Jacobs and Michael Martin play all of the adult roles — on obvious device to show that all adults are identical in their obtuseness. The actors tend to overplay, but they also effectively handle the emotional nuances of their characters.
The show has many heavy-handed ways of expressing the dangers of stifling knowledge, inquiry and sexuality. One lyric directly implores the audience to "listen to what's in the heart of a child." But under Gary Rucker's direction, the talented cast adds dimension and interest to the characters and story, making it difficult not to listen. — LAUREN LABORDE