John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff, and Lea Michele  in Spring Awakening
(Photo © Monique Carboni)
John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff, and Lea Michele
in Spring Awakening
(Photo © Monique Carboni)
Every generation of unhappy, tortured teenagers has had its own theatrical cri de coeur from Romeo & Juliet to Hair to Rent. But few works probably had the same impact as the original production of Frank Wedekind's 1891 German drama Spring Awakening, which detailed the sexual coming-of-age of that country's teens -- a work so powerful and shocking it is still produced today.

Whether Steven Sater and Duncan Shiek's decidedly 21st-century musical version, also titled Spring Awakening, will still be produced 100 years hence remains to be seen. But there's no doubt this piece will speak to many young theatergoers -- and thrill those who are willing to meet this unusual and frequently brilliant work on its own terms.

Sater, who is responsible for both book and lyrics, has taken a definite chance in keeping the story set in 19th-century Germany, while having the characters speak and sing in a 21st-century vernacular. Perhaps he and Sheik felt that in 2006, it would be less than believable that the mother of 15-year-old Wendla (Lea Michele) would refuse to tell her how babies are conceived, or that the dreamy, intellectual Melchior (Jonathan Groff) would be expelled for giving his best pal, the neurotic Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr.), an essay on the female sexual anatomy. Some places probably do still exist -- in America and elsewhere -- but the Lutheran atmosphere of repression and denial of 1891 Germany is hard to match. Just witnessing the unhappy outcome of the three main characters, one can only imagine what will happen when the young homosexual lovers, Hanschen (the impossibly Aryan looking Jonathan B. Wright) and Ernst (Gideon Glick), are found out, or the ultimate fate of the paternally-abused Martha (Lili Cooper) and teenage runaway Ilse (the excellent Lauren Pritchard).

The Atlantic Theatre Company has never produced a musical before in its 20-year history, and yet has managed to get just about everything right in this maiden effort. Perhaps its wisest step was hiring such top-tier talent as director Michael Mayer (doing some of his finest work in years) and choreographer Bill T. Jones and trusting their artistic vision. The mostly bare-bones staging -- aided by Christine Jones' marble-floor set and Susan Hilferty's smart period costumes -- allows a clear focus on the work. So does placing the show's four instrumentalists -- three string players and a drummer -- against the stage's back wall. (Cast member Skyler Astin, who plays schoolmate Georg, periodically sits in on piano.) Some audience members have a particularly up-close view of the band, since they are seated (with some of the cast members) on either side of the set.

Being so close to the action also allows one to fully appreciate Sheik's absolutely haunting and often breathtaking score, which I imagine will blossom further on repeated listenings. While he often favors the kind of art-pop melodies associated with Joni Mitchell -- which perfectly match Sater's more poetic lyrics -- Sheik is equally comfortable trying out a touch of rap, girl-group harmonies, or even the Elvis Costello-like rock of Mortiz's "Don't Do Sadness" when the situation calls for it. Unlike a more traditional theatrical score, these songs seem written to stand on their own -- even if it appears unlikely that many radio stations would deign to play something from an Off-Broadway musical.

Mayer's greatest triumph, however, is guiding his young cast with such acumen. The brooding Groff, who sings as gorgeously as he looks, gives a true star-in-the-making performance. Gallagher, who recently showed off his dramatic chops in Rabbit Hole, is not only moving and convincing, but vocalizes with great assurance. As for Michele, she is nothing short of luminous. It's a shock to realize this beautiful young woman was just a little girl in Ragtime less than a decade ago -- and a pleasure to imagine that she will be a splendid Eponine in the upcoming Broadway revival of Les Miserables. Tony Award winner Frank Wood and Atlantic co-founder Mary McCann mostly do what they can in all the various adult roles -- including a pair of nasty schoolteachers and the kids' clueless parents -- but these stock characters are a waste of their talents.

With all the award-show hoopla finally at its end, theatergoers can finally give full attention to the new season. And there's no more provocative way to start the season -- or the summer -- than Spring Awakening.