When they start fooling around, they may lack crucial information.
You may know the euphemistic song, from an old-fashioned Broadway musical, about males and females who at unguarded moments begin "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly." I thought of that tune at the end of the first act of Spring Awakening, the new-fashioned, multiple-Tony-winning Broadway musical. That's when teenage characters copulate, in a bit of provocative stagecraft that is virtually without euphemism.
It's one of many provocative and telling moments in this stirring, funny-sad show. Spring Awakening, which began a two-day run at Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, is set in 1890s Germany, a place where, as we learn in the opening scene, parents are too ashamed to talk to their children about sex. So when kids start fooling around, they may lack crucial information -- about, for example, where babies come from. Disaster awaits.
Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, Spring Awakening interweaves a handful of stories, some no more than vignettes, about a group of sexually anxious youths. The show chiefly concerns Melchior (Christopher Wood), a bright, knowing boy who has developed a sour set of notions about bourgeois constraints, and Wendla (Elizabeth Judd), the pretty girl he keeps running into out in the fecund countryside.
There also is Moritz (Coby Cetzug), an earnest lad who can't keep his grades up; and Ilse (Courtney Markowitz), a girl who has left school for a racy life in an artists' colony; and a couple of smitten boys who can't keep their hands off each other; and various imperious teachers, parents and other clueless adults, all played by Mark Poppleton and, at the first Saturday night show, the understudy Paris Bradstreet. The performances are appealing, though the young men have learned a few too many lessons at the school of whiny, pop-punk singing (Blink-182's Tom DeLonge has tenure there).
Arranged for a rock band that sits at the back of the stage, Spring Awakening's songs were composed by the singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, with lyrics by Steven Slater, who also wrote the book. By and large, they are not songs that audience members will walk up the aisles humming. But they are forceful and lyrical, and the young, attractive cast members sing them with conviction -- and with hand-held microphones, one of several deliberate anachronisms that are employed throughout, effectively. There's just one bona fide showstopper: The second act's "Totally Fucked," which prompts laughs with its smutty lyrics, then explodes into a riot of singing and dancing. On Saturday, the audience rewarded it with a long ovation.
There are other funny songs, like the ensemble number "My Junk," in which Devon Stone sings while masturbating in time under his nightshirt. There also is much wistful balladry. Perhaps the show's most searing song is the doleful "The Dark I Know Well," about child abuse. Its lyrics address its subject with a frankness and precision that some of the other songs, near abstractions, could use more of.
The remarkable choreography is by Bill T. Jones, who develops a powerful motif that lingers with me. As the show begins, Judd, in a solitary moment, touches her body in a series of tentative, curious gestures. The gestures are echoed by cast members throughout the show, sometimes in solos, sometimes in frenetic line dances. These ritualized, mechanical bursts of movement are mysterious, amusing and heartbreaking.