ST. PETERSBURG — Of all the things twisted teen tragicomedy Spring Awakening gets right, the rock musical's true smarts lie in the way it captures the high-low cadence of adolescence. It is both a John Hughes comedy and a bleaker Romeo and Juliet. It is Disney cute — until a veritable princess gets spanked with a switch and impregnated by the town heartthrob. Kids are seriously bipolar. So let's sing!
Since winning the 2007 Tony for best musical, when it featured, appropriately enough, future Glee stars Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff as sexually curious youth, Spring Awakening has only expanded its rabid cult following. After seeing its incarnation at Freefall Theatre, I finally understand why. Lyricist Steven Sater and pop star Duncan Sheik modernized a dreary 19th century play by German Frank Wedekind with slick, singable songs, all the while retaining the original work's time period, locale and Teutonic oppression. It is modern and yet still retains that age-old truth: Growing up, no matter which century, can be a serious bummer.
With a cast of nubile young actors — plus two very talented grownups playing all of the villainous adult parts — Spring Awakening is intimate and in-your-face, ribald and risk-taking, the streamlined plot centering around naughty notebook scribblings that fall into the wrong hands. The play is a perfect fit for Freefall, which shares those aforementioned attributes, presenting the deliberately schizophrenic show in the round, the crowd thrust into the dizziness.
When a young German boy belts out the anthemic My Junk while fantasizing about a conquest, you can't look (or squirm) away even if you wanted to. Oftentimes that elimination of the fourth wall is breathtaking: When a jarring teen suicide is followed by the uplifting, if R-rated, Totally F-----, the line between audience and action is blurred, the epitome of this coming-of-age tale on steroids. Same goes for the finale, in which the body count rises right along with the uplift. It's a tough tightrope to walk, but Spring Awakening has become so beloved because of that rare, unique balance.
In a rather sweet coup, Freefall has benefitted from hometown pride: Lead actress Rachel Potter, who plays the uber-innocent, ill-fated Wendla, is a Seminole High grad who honed her acting chops playing Ariel and Belle at Disney World. She's starred in Broadway productions of Evita and The Addams Family, but she's spending her summer vacation here, and isn't that lucky for us. All brunette warmth and sparkly eyes, Potter sounds like she's about to belt The Little Mermaid's Part of Your World at any second. But Wendla's journey into sexuality is far from a fairy tale, which makes Potter's shattered-naivete performance that much more jarring.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Chase Peacock (from Green Day's American Idiot) plays intellectual hunk Melchior with a stoic smolder that gets him into bed and trouble; some of his vocals were marred by occasional sound glitches, but he has a solid rock delivery. Lucas Wells (HBO's Boardwalk Empire) steals the production as cursed, amorously befuddled Moritz; his eyes are geared for laughs and tears, and he garners plenty of both. Kudos as well to Steve Garland and Lisa Kay Powers who split the numerous grownup roles; it's to their credit that, despite limited wardrobe changes, the actors so nail the inflection of every bad teacher and conflicted parent — no question who the bad guys are here — you never miss a twist.
Director Eric Davis doesn't have much room or budget, which makes this staging of Spring Awakening a technical achievement as well as an emotional one. If you've ever owned a small apartment, you know that sometimes you have to go vertical; at Freefall, there's upward ingenuity in lights, stage design and dispersal of the house band.
The result is overwhelming and enlightening, terrifying and terrific, your first love and your first heartache bundled in one whopper of a theatrical kiss.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.