As a space for exploring the torrid depths of teenage angst, the Broadway stage has never exactly been creative ground zero.
The relatively sunny medium of musical theater -- at least in its most commercial form -- has concentrated on stories of love and laughter, with rare darker pieces directed squarely at adults.
So you have to give ample credit to the team behind "Spring Awakening," the rock-fueled, angst-infused musical that played the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Thursday night, for creating a wildly popular Broadway franchise out of the deadly serious topic of teenage sexuality.
This erudite and in many ways unconventional musical, which won eight Tonys in 2007, takes audiences into Germany at the end of the 19th century, a time and place of severe social strictures among the upper classes, when the focus was trained on school, the church and precious little else.
But young minds wander to strange and distant places, as do those of the students this musical follows. There's the well-read, intellectually ambitious Melchior (Christopher Wood), whose newfound passion intersects with that of Wendla (Elizabeth Judd). The frazzled, emotionally conflicted Moritz (Coby Getzug) is driven to distraction by his own desires, while the confident Hanschen (Devon Stone) dares to follow his own more dangerous (read: homosexual) whims.
This touring production is stellar from top to bottom. The gifted cast brims with exactly the sort of unflinching youthful intensity its all-too-recognizable characters demand. Standout performances come from Judd as the starry-eyed Wendla and Getzug, whose performance struck me as one long, sustained and ultimately tragic nervous breakdown.
Duncan Sheik's music, written mostly in the alt-rock idiom but resorting perhaps a little too often to tepid stock musical conventions, has its brilliant moments and beautiful melodies.
There are stark lessons to be drawn from this show, some of them expected, and others surprising. These have to do with the root causes for the violence of the 20th century, the pervasiveness of ignorance in child-rearing across the centuries and finally the eternal and unwinnable struggles we make toward self-knowledge.
Bill T. Jones' choreography, which melds the frenetic stage antics of Billie Joe Armstrong will inspired bits of modern dance vocabulary, is one of the central appeals of the show. It shines especially in one raucous, unprintable number in the second act. During one moment in that song, the cast's feet remain firmly planted as they must be in the motionless world of their parents as their limbs flail in wild expression of their true desires.
They could never quite realize those desires, deeply held as they were. In a sense, because society is long from reaching that "purple summer" of which those conflicted kids sing with such longing, neither can we. And that's why we have musicals like "Spring Awakening."
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Thursday evening at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts