Spring Awakening

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Oct. 27

It can be an uncomfortable experience to see actual teens crooning the sexually charged tunes of Spring Awakening, but isn’t that the point of the show? The enduring following of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s reworking of Frank Wedekind’s play might come from its willingness to admit that for teenagers, a good part about sex is not understanding it or being able to get straight answers about it from adults.

The relationship to modern times is apparent from Thomas Mauney’s stage design, which consists of plywood walls covered with such modern accoutrements as backpacks, a TV and even a computer screen, before opening up to reveal the minimalist set and on-stage musicians. Wendla Bergmann (Brishelle Miller), the tragic heroine of the play, emerges from the audience and puts on a waiting white dress, transforming into her 19th-century counterpart.

In the key role of the frustrated intellectual Moritz, Green Hope High School junior Nicholas Alexander Polonio does a fine job, but there are times when his youth is a distraction. In his key duet with Ilse (Sarah Winter), the fact that she’s a head taller, looks a decade older and has a more experienced singing voice undercuts what’s supposed to be a key moment. (Winter has to stand several steps below him on the set’s bleachers to look him in the eye.)

The stage devices, from esteemed veteran director C. Glen Matthews, are imaginative, even if they don’t always work. The production is limited by the relatively small stage space of RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre. Only a few numbers, such as the chair-hopping “The Bitch of Living,” really gain energy. (Special credit also goes to Matthew Reda, who plays the piano-teacher-lusting Georg and does everything from carrying around other cast members to on-stage cartwheels.)

On the afternoon I saw it, there were some sound problems, with microphones occasionally cutting out and a few of the younger cast members having trouble getting their voices to reach the back of the theater as a result. In a few numbers where the teens’ singing plays out over the adults talking at them, these issues inadvertently highlight how the the original play’s dialogue has been dumbed down in favor of defiant anthems.

Yet these anthems do account for the considerable achievement of Spring Awakening and its following among young theatergoers (the bulk of the audience was high school- or college-aged), as well as its ability to take a relatively obscure German drama and make it both relevant and representative of the modern world.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Sexual perversity in the Triangle.”