- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

Between “The Color Purple” and “Spring Awakening,” the Kennedy Center is sexed up for summer.

Sex as a destroyer and an undeniable life force is a theme running through both musicals, but where “The Color Purple” takes a traditional Broadway approach in musical styles and treatment, “Spring Awakening” gets its cues from live rock performance and an exciting indie-pop score from Duncan Sheik. This Tony Award-winning show proves that rock musicals can shimmer with substance and authenticity.

Adolescent angst and antsiness permeate “Spring Awakening,” which seems brashly of the moment but actually is based on a once-banned 1891 drama by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy,” the expressionistic work portrays the ways in which a repressive culture can stifle and sometimes snuff out youthful spirit. Considered shocking in its day, “Spring Awakening” addresses incest, abuse, suicide, abortion, teen sexuality and masturbation.

Mr. Sheik’s astonishing music — ranging from dreamlike ballads to driving, almost religious rock anthems — provides an emotional outlet for expressing the tumult of puberty. The cast’s tightly buttoned-down outfits by Susan Hilferty suggest the 19th century, but when the actors whip microphones out of their garments and begin belting out Steven Sater’s plaintive lyrics and tearing through the thrashing poses of indie icons (choreographer Bill T. Jones provides the hypnotic, visual totems of the dances and movement), you could be at the Black Cat or 9:30 Club. The set by Christine Jones could be a music club — sans bar, of course, as the youths onstage are underage.

“Spring Awakening” deals with sexual budding among a group of youths. Disheveled sleepyhead Moritz (an electrifying Blake Bashoff) is so disturbed by his nocturnal fantasies and the pressures of exams and pleasing his father that he sinks into despair, as seen in the powder-keg songs “The Bitch of Living,” “And Then There Were None” and “Totally.”

The radical scholar Melchior (Jake Epstein, from “De Grassi High: The Next Generation,” appealingly broody and intense) is more textbook-experienced in sexual matters, and he strives to put his knowledge into practice with the almost tragically innocent Wendla (Christy Altomare, agleam with vulnerability and hope). Sexuality also is expressed as release — with Hanschen (Andy Mientus, a suave seducer) self-pleasuring in “My Junk” to the meter of Desdemona’s death scene from “Othello” — or as a means of control, as Martha (an affecting Sarah Hunt) painfully relates in “The Dark I Know Well.” Experimentation is even depicted, with an awkward attempt at S&M and, later, same-sex canoodling (“The Word of Your Body”).

Wedekind meant “Spring Awakening” to illustrate the effects of provincialism and overprotectiveness on future generations. This message has modern resonance, for as the characters in “Spring Awakening” so vividly show, keeping teenagers in the dark about sex only spirals into other, deeper kinds of darkness.

★★★★

WHAT: “Spring Awakening,” score by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Aug. 2.

TICKETS: $25 to $90

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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