Raleigh Little Theatres Spring Awakening, a dark musical about teen sexuality and societal repression, may not be what regular audience members expect but few will be able to deny its one of the companys strongest productions in memory. The performers consistent quality, the directors empathetic vision and the designers bold imagination make it a watershed event.
In a German town in the 1890s, young Wendlas mother is reluctant to tell her the facts of life, leaving Wendla unprepared for the consequences after her sexual encounter with the brooding, rebellious Melchior. Already under a cloud for questioning authority, Melchior goes even further by preparing an illustrated pamphlet about sexual relations for his pubescent friend Moritz.
Their classmates have additional problems, caused by parents and teachers attempts to control teenage urges. The devastating results make for moving and enlightening lessons.
Composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater keep the plot anchored in the 1890s but use indie-rock songs with contemporary (and sometimes profane) lyrics to indicate things are basically the same today. These are rarely showpiece numbers, employed instead to inform moments of fears and feelings.
Director C. Glen Matthews gets impressively confident performances from his mostly teenage cast. Brishelle Miller fills Wendla with convincing curiosity and desire, singing with affecting emotion. Adam Keller elevates the contemplative Melchior to tragic hero status. Nicholas Alexander Polonio is an audience favorite for his firecracker energy and endearing characterization as Moritz.
Sarah Winter makes the outcast Ilse sadly wise and sings the final, uplifting anthem fervently. Parker Perry adds devilish charm to Hanschen, on the prowl for Ernst, played with amusing innocence by Timothy Malboeuf. Chris Milner and Betsy Henderson inhabit all the adult characters with veteran skill.
Thomas Mauneys ingenious setting begins as a stage-filling wall of compartments, then splits apart like puzzle pieces, deployed at various angles for each scene. His lighting design enhances the cold, closed-off atmosphere.
Music director Julie Florins onstage orchestra gets credit for subtle, moody support that never overpowers the singing. The sound system worked well enough Friday but was inconsistent, despite the use of both face and handheld mikes.
Tighter pacing would make the show even more gripping but its inspired presentation should convince anyone of its worthiness as a season selection.