Aleksa Kurbalija in Spring Awakening | National Theatre

Look, it’s that musical where the The Kids get up to no good. The one about masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. (Oh my!) The 19th century German play it was based on was banned (as all the best 19th century art was, of course). The one they brand “controversial” to drum up attention. Not that they need to.

It is pitched, shamelessly, at a new Broadway generation. And it succeeds, admirably. This is the very model of a modern major musical — contemporary, sober, self-aware. It celebrates and defies musical theatre tradition at once, subverting it just enough for the all-singing sentimentality — the bane of most musical haters — to resonate.

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Spring Awakening is born of a new breed — along with shows like Avenue Q (the potty-mouthed puppets), American Idiot (Green Day’s Broadway hit), The Drowsy Chaperone (the Melbourne Theatre Company gave us a great version last year) and Next To Normal (MTC delivers that in April) — that don’t simply preserve the art form but breathe new life into it. And yet it triumphs ultimately, not by scandalising its story or trashing its form, but by the same formula of every successful musical — a sweeping, soaring score that burrows into your head for days.

In this case, it’s a sort of toe-tapping alternative rock, from quasi-gospel hymns to stabbing ballads and the sweetest pop hooks. Duncan Sheik, a singer-songwriter turned stage/screen accompanist, has crafted a bewitching soundscape with just the right shades of darkness and light for Steven Sater’s potent book and lyrics, adapted from Frank Wedekind’s seminal 1891 play of the same name.

Their awakening, these not-so-young Germans, is not unlike any other coming-of-age story you’ve seen, but the oppression and intolerance of the times weighs heavily. The blokes are bubbling with testosterone — “…the itch you can’t control / Let me teach you how to handle / All the sadness in your soul” (The Bitch of Living) — and reaching for, err, relief (My Junk). The girls are asking where they came from (Mamma Who Bore Me) and search desperately for intimacy (Touch Me). They fumble for each other and suffer the shame of the experience — “And now our bodies are the guilty ones / Our touch — will colour hours” (The Guilty Ones). And when it all goes horribly wrong, how about Totally Fucked as a show-stopper, in every sense:

Yeah, you’re fucked all right — and all for spite
You can kiss your sorry ass goodbye
Totally fucked — will they mess you up?
Well you know they’re gonna try

It was named best musical at New York’s Tony Awards in 2007 (defeating, incidentally, the extortionate Mary Poppins, packing in crowds at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne), winning eight trophies from 11 nominations. The Sydney Theatre Company staged the first Australian production last year, but this is Melbourne’s first look at a show also awarded in London and beyond.

So the expectation on the shiny young things of this show — something less than professional from Matthew Henderson’s version of young talent time, the Young Australian Broadway Chorus — is impossibly high. They all impress, even if the overall result only teases at how good an act this is.

With all the naked ambition of an Australian Idol audition, each of the 24-strong ensemble (including a few meddling adults) shines. But the leads can be singled out, all just 17: baby-faced Shannen Chin-Quan’s sturdy voice didn’t crack as Wendla, Aleksa Kurbalija struggled with some difficult falsetto but brought necessary charisma to the prodigal Melchior, and as the intense and troubled Moritz, Liam Maguire embraced the awkwardness and burned with adolescent anger. He, more than anyone, captured the insurgent spirit of the piece. The band never missed a beat, either: more precociously talented performers under Mathew Frank’s guidance.

The real shame is how much of it got lost in the (sadly) crumbling and cavernous National Theatre, with its no-doubt ageing sound system. Not the basics of the plot, thankfully; well staged by director Robert Coates, urgently choreographed by Stephen Agisilaou and faithfully designed by Claude Marcos (sets) and Jennifer McKenzie (costumes). Nor the emotion, thanks to such great performances. But Sater’s savvy lyrics were smothered by the poor acoustics. The National is a great concert venue when you play it loud — it’s not a great venue for this sort of performance.

This is a taste, sweet as it can be, of a really wonderful piece of musical theatre. Just download the Broadway cast recording from iTunes (that’s Glee songbird Lea Michele in the lead, if you were wondering) when you get home afterwards.

Curtain Call rating: B

The details: Spring Awakening is at the National Theatre in St Kilda until February 5. Tickets through Ticketek.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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