GLOUCESTER — “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony Award-winning hit musical, is set in 19th-century Germany, but it has an achingly contemporary feel. In the Gloucester Stage Company production, its tale of adolescent frustration, lust, and longing packs an unnerving emotional punch.
Director Eric C. Engel and musical director Catherine Stornetta have assembled a cast with vocal prowess that spans from the novice to the operatic — a range that only illuminates the variety of personalities among the teenage characters onstage. It also amplifies the tension around the odds of their survival in their repressed provincial community.
Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play of the same name, “Spring Awakening” retains the drama’s original 1890s setting but allows the performers to assume contemporary attitudes and slang when they sing. The story focuses primarily on a trio of teenagers discovering the pain and joy of their sexuality: the naive Wendla (Melody Madarasz), whose mother cannot bring herself to explain the facts of life; the brilliant Melchior (Phil Tayler), whose knowledge becomes his undoing; and the neurotic Moritz (Ross Mumford), who buckles under pressure from his parents. When he sings “I Don’t Do Sadness,” we can almost feel his brittle willpower shatter.
The other teens whose lives intersect with these three include Ilse (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), who loves Moritz but has been cast out of the community; Otto (Daniel Scott Walton) and Georg (Andrew Oberstein), who find excitement and satisfaction in their attraction to each other (“The Word of Your Body”); and Martha (Meghan LaFlam), who with palpable fear and resignation reveals the physical and sexual abuse she suffers at home in “The Dark I Know Well.”
Engel’s vision for this production revolves around the teenagers’ struggle to break free of the social conventions that restrict them. Every production element serves that idea: Gail A. Buckley’s plain uniforms for the boys, Russ Swift’s shadowy lighting, and, interestingly, Jenna McFarland Lord’s upstage drawbridge, which becomes a potent symbol. Choreographer Jodi Leigh Allen uses it most effectively to frame some haunting combinations, and Engel has the actors clamber across, through, and over it.
In Act 2, as the devastating consequences of the teens’ uninformed choices become clear, the drawbridge rises, suggesting that access is cut off, and that the gap between these young people’s desires and society’s expectations is impossible to close.
Sheik has written a score that owes much to the alt-rock he was known for in the 1990s, but also has an anguished sound of cello and violin that Stornetta emphasizes as much as the driving guitar.
The power of this production stems from the simplicity with which the Gloucester Stage ensemble presents a complex emotional landscape. Despite what one of the show’s songs calls “The Bitch of Living,” “Spring Awakening” encourages holding on to our childlike wonder.