In its opening scenes, Broadway/San Diego's current musical, Spring Awakening, looks kind of like a Blackboard Jungle in reverse, with at least one bloodthirsty faculty member cracking heads all over campus at a whim. The hatchet-faced teacher, whose pointer doubles as a switch, is running a drill in Latin (a dead language to boot) at a preppy junior high, and he's got it in for a gangly kid whose fresh-faced honesty poses a serious threat to the status quo.
But young Melchior Gabor's trials—and the budding sexuality that underlines them in the repressive Germany of 1891, the play's setting—are outstripped by the courage of his convictions. While the outcome is predictable enough, the modern treatments around it are anything but. Writer Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have yanked this Frank Wedekind story from its 19th-century obscurity, placing the melancholy, trenchant rock music center stage. Wireless microphones pop out of woolen blazers at the drop of a hat, and suddenly, the kids are crooning poster children for every adolescent longing that's marked every culture since the beginning of time.
This show loses some sense of character development in favor of its 20 full-length songs. But its statement on coming of age succeeds for one basic reason—it's loopy with anecdotes that tell a story rather than preach a gospel. Neon and fluorescent tech effects work in much the same way here, framing the late 19th century without casting it in stone.
The result is a work of art as soulful as it is inspirational, achingly rich with relevant messages of tragedy and hope.Melky (Canadian Kyle Riabko) is eventually sent to a reformatory, a de facto hero to the boys and girls who share his sexual curiosity and befuddlement over the world at large. He's impregnated his friend Wendla Bergmann (Christy Altomare), who'll pay dearly for her indiscretion, with the intervening scenes touching on homosexuality, domestic violence, masturbation, abortion, the loss of virginity and the isolated suicide that marks them. That's where the music becomes such a crucial element—it's the unifying element in this piece, blurring historical and cultural distinctions in portraying adolescence with a single voice.
The haunting “I Believe” is a signature case in point. It's not a tune so much as a universal rite—the ensemble rings center stage as Melky and Wendla bravely declare their mutual passion and budding adulthood. “All will be forgiven / There is love in heaven,” the players intone amid these sweet discoveries—the lovemaking (which features brief nudity) is unerringly gentle, warm and upstanding, just as their heaven intended. Director Michael Mayer (who clearly must have teenagers of his own) delights in this interlude—it's his centerpiece for the humor and pathos on either side of it, and he elicits each trait with genuine regard for the teenage experience.
San Diego is the only locale outside New York to stage this piece, and the show is the inaugural Broadway/San Diego entry at Downtown's Balboa Theatre, which reopened in January after a $25-million facelift and having sat idle for 20 years. By the same token, Spring Awakening is a first—for once, there's a true 21st-century rock 'n' roll attitude here, and the cast knows it. Look at all those unforgettable smiles at curtain call, as wide as their owners' eyes, and bodies that look like they could do it all over again as an encore. The players are head-over-heels-beyond-words in love with this show and, by extension, with us. As we clutch our collective breath at the beauty of it all, we humbly return the favor. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 20. Spring Awakening runs through Aug. 31 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Downtown. $12.50-$45.50. 619-570-1100 or www.broadwaysd.com.