Young men taught to bury their feelings and rule by force. Young women kept in the dark and told to be quiet. Ignorance of puberty, sex and pregnancy.
Those elements prove combustible when combined and the resulting explosion can be exhilarating or destructive — the premise of German author Franz Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening.”
Add the energy of rock music, supplied by composer Duncan Sheik, and you have the 2006 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Spring Awakening,” whose Theatre Uncovered late-night production takes over the Waco Civic Theatre on Friday and Saturday.
It’s the latest collaboration between the WCT and Theatre Uncovered, a troupe of current and graduated Baylor University theater students feeling a need to expand local theater offerings into edgier territory.
Last year, the combination produced a one-night concert version of the musical “Heathers,” a high-powered, raucous and sometimes raunchy adaptation of the 1988 movie of two outsiders in murderous revolt against their high school social structure.
“Heathers’” lead actress Leah Beth Etheredge, a newly-minted Baylor graduate, returns to direct “Spring Awakening,” with other “Heathers” cast members, including music director Lauren Weber, returning as well.
It’s material that Baylor and the WCT likely would sidestep due to content and language, but precisely the type of offering that a younger high school and college crowd would love to see and experience, she said.
“We want to challenge the Waco arts community, especially younger people,” she said. While “Heathers” dealt in dark satire with the question of social bullying, “Spring Awakening” tackles questions of sex, familial abuse, shaming, abortion and suicide — a coming-of-age story that doesn’t pull punches.
Etheredge, 22, acknowledged that Baylor’s ongoing controversy over charges of sexual assault and official inaction or coverup heightened the impact of the musical’s material for cast members. “It definitely makes you think about a lot of things,” she said. “It’s a hard show to dig into, It’s a redemptive play, but a warning play, too . . . But I think even the Baylor community is making points not to turn a blind eye to things going on. There’s an obligation to our fellow man to take care of people.”
Set in late 19th century Germany, “Spring Awakening” focuses on two groups of high school friends. Melchior (Austin Ingalls) is a bright student, chafing under the authoritarian rule of his teachers. He tries to help classmate Moritz (Zach Campa), disturbed by erotic dreams, by writing an essay on sex for him, an essay that later backfires on him. Melchior finds himself powerless when a teacher unjustifiably fails Moritz, whose life unravels with the shame of it.
Female students, led by Wendla (Lily Howard), find their efforts to find out about their changing bodies and the facts of life meet are rebuffed by the adults in their lives, who advise them to be quiet and look to love as their answer. As her friends talk about the subject, Wendla finds some have been sexually abused by fathers or kicked out of their families.
Melchior and Wendla stumble into an exhilarating and liberating fling, but their worlds crash when she becomes pregnant. Things end tragically for some of “Spring Awakening’s” characters, but others come to a hard-won hope that the future will be different. That gives the story a redemptive uplift, Etheredge said. “These characters become whole people,” she said.
In contrast to “Heathers,” presented in a bare-bones concert version, “Spring Awakening” features full sets, costuming and lighting, with music from a five-piece instrumental ensemble. Theatre Uncovered’s organizers hope that it can continue in years ahead and maybe even expand beyond Waco.
Etheredge said “Spring Awakening’s” subject matter and language makes it equivalent to that in a PG-13-rated movie and its 10 p.m. curtain time also nudges it toward an older audience.