According to actress Alyse Alan Louis, “Spring Awakening,” opening Thursday and running to March 10 at Olney Theatre, “goes against the grain of a typical musical.”
That may be a bit of an understatement.
Based on a controversial 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind, “Spring Awakening” takes an uncensored look at often taboo topics in the lives of teenagers, like the emergence of feelings of sexual longing and the dangers that arise in the absence of proper sexual education.
The show also happens to be set to a rock ’n’ roll musical score.
“Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway in 2006 and immediately became a favorite among young audiences and critics alike. The show won eight Tony awards and spawned countless other productions worldwide. The original Broadway cast featured Lea Michele (now of “Glee” fame) and John Gallagher Jr. who now stars in HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
“I can remember the buzz about it in college,” Louis said. “We all know the music. It’s almost like [it] is for us.”
Louis grew up outside of Philadelphia and attended the musical theater program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. After starring as Sophie in “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway from 2010 to 2011, she came to Olney to audition for “Spring Awakening.”
Louis plays Wendla, a teenager searching for answers about the changes in her body and new sexual impulses she’s deemed “dangerous.”
Both Louis and actor Matthew Kacergis, who plays Wendla’s love interest, Melchoir, said they have been fans of the edgy musical since its run on Broadway, and were excited to take on the roles.
“It was a part that I always wanted to do,” Kacergis said. “I really like the music ... and for better or worse, I can remember my high school self going through a lot of the same things.”
“These roles are so true to life in the sense that adolescence is such an emotional and confusing time,” added Louis. “I wanted to take on a role that explored that.”
Throughout the show, Wendla, Melchoir and their peers struggle to elicit honest answers from their parents about sex and the changes they’re enduring.
“The show really focuses on that period of time when you’re pre-adolescent, when you start to questions things,” Kacergis said. “It’s kind of that negotiation between the teens and their parents.”
Though the show is set in 19th century Germany, Kacergis said the contemporary score helps to bridge the gap between the past and present.
“What’s wonderful about the music is the text stays true to the original ... but the music sounds like what you’d hear on the radio today,” he said. “It’s able to show parallels between late 19th century and 2013.”
“I think it works because what is the same, the connective tissue is ... the difficulty of adolescence still exists,” added Louis.
It’s this “connective tissue,” the exposure of adolescent angst, that director Steven Cosson said will make “Spring Awakening” a timeless play.
“I think the subject matter is definitely universal,” Cosson said. “There are differences between today’s world and the late 19th century life in a German village, but certainly the emotional landscape of adolescence is universal and timeless.”
Cosson, who grew up in Potomac and now lives in New York, credited the show’s continuing popularity among young people to “Spring Awakening’s” combination of truthful portrayal of emerging adolescence and its energetic score.
“I think that a lot of that excitement about the Broadway run and its subsequent productions came from the fact that it’s sung by young people,” he said. “It’s a resurgence of musical theater ... Probably didn’t hurt that it preceded the age of ‘Glee.’”
While Olney’s latest production appeals to teens, its education department also offered something for their parents. In conjunction with the show’s opening, Olney’s director of education Jason Jones, facilitated a panel discussion called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” on Jan. 30.
“It was clear that it was our responsibility to embrace the subject and find ways to open up dialogue with the community,” Jones said.
Jones added that the panel was part of an ongoing effort in a partnership between the theater and its educational programs.
“We don’t just want to leave the experience after the lights go out,” Jones said.
The three panelists included Dr. Susan Milstein, a master certified health education specialist and a certified sexuality educator, and Amy and Charles Miron, American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists certified sex educators and therapists.
The Q&A-style discussion was intended to give parents “strategies, methods and ways ... to talk to their kids about sex.”
“This play is not something any of us should run away from,” Jones said. “We think it’s an important thing to talk about and want to get the dialogue going now.”