"Spring Awakening" offers devastating, mesmerizing story

“Spring Awakening” is the kind of show where Goth kids dance like punk rockers, wear their angst-ridden, sexually confused hearts on their starched, 19th-century sleeves and become enmeshed in a tragedy as sepulchral as most anything by Shakespeare.

Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1890s tale of repression and desire and transformed into a searing Broadway anthem by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, the musical now rears its ecstatic and agonized little soul on the stage of Actor’s Express.

By turns devastating and buoyant, director Freddie Ashley’s erotically charged season opener is one of  the more potent pieces of theater to grace an Atlanta stage in some time. A tale of young love, suicide, child abuse, teen pregnancy, homosexuality and bittersweet redemption, “Spring Awakening” is a beautiful, heart-rending, must-see theatrical experience. One moment you will be forlorn and sob-stricken; the next minute you’ll want to eject from your chair and dance to these scathing songs with unprintable titles.

As directed by Ashley, choreographed by Sarah Turner (with echoes of Bill T. Jones’ original Broadway work) and dressed by Erik Teague, the youthful company dances, acts and looks extraordinary. Outfitted in Goth frocks and slinky hose, the female ensemble is across-the-board brilliant in the singing department; any unevenness among the male vocalists — who wear skinny, all-black tights, knickers and jackets — comes across as naturalistic. (You do not hire a fellow like Jimi Kocina because he can sing; you hire him because he's a very accomplished actor.)

In the leads, Kylie Brown is lovely as the dewy, innocent Wendla. A few clumsy microphone moments aside, Jordan Craig makes for an exceedingly handsome, charismatic and reedy-voiced Melchior. In their haunting duet, “The Word of Your Body,” Sater’s lyrics prick like a pin: “Oh, I’m gonna be wounded; oh, I’m gonna be your wound. Oh, I’m gonna bruise you; oh, you’re gonna be my bruise.”

The supporting ensemble is terrific, too, especially Kathryn Foley (Anna); Nick Arapoglou (Georg/Dieter); and Jordan Dell Harris and Bernard Jones, who are cast somewhat against Aryan type as Hanschen and Ernst, the Achilles and Patroclus of this art-imitating-Latin-class tableaux. The ever-versatile comedienne LaLa Cochran and the penguin-like Robert Wayne are superb in the adult roles. It’s particularly funny to see Cochran’s buttoned-up German persona turn into a dominatrix. Her reading of Melchior’s mother’s letter to Moritz is moving and eloquent.

And speaking of Moritz, words fail to describe Greg Bosworth’s take on the tortured character. A role that won John Gallagher Jr. a Tony Award, Moritz is generally known as “the one with the hair," and here it’s an asymmetrical ‘do inspired by ’80s rockers and Tim Burton’s twisted Victoriana. Bosworth is a major talent (I’d love to see him play Hedwig or Bat Boy). Your heart will bleed for Moritz.

Previously, I saw “Spring Awakening” at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre and at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre; Actor’s Express’ intimate arrangement only illumines the emotional contours of this exhilarating ride. Like most musicals, the show takes a few numbers to hit its stride, but when Melchior realizes he’s about to get his punishment and the ensemble kicks into full-tilt Bill T. Jones mode, bodies popping like champagne corks, “Spring Awakening” goes pinnacle. It’s that rare theatrical commodity that gets under your skin and will not let go.  I could see watch this exquisitely dark approximation of the chaos of youth again and again. Stunning.

“Spring Awakening”

Grade: A-

8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. $26-$32. Through Oct. 1. Actor’s Express, 887 West Marietta St. NW, Suite J-107. Atlanta. 404-607- 7469; actorsexpress.com

Bottom line: A beautiful and intimate telling of the seething Broadway musical about teen angst.