When Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, the rock music world was gobsmacked by this Seattle punk who dared to unveil the emotional pretzels plaguing adolescents’ psyches: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us. A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, a denial, a denial, a denial . . . .”
Fans and critics marveled – or were aghast – at how Cobain seemingly pegged contemporary adolescent rebellion and sexual angst in one fell swoop, while 20th-century sociology and psychology floundered at the same.
But Cobain was beaten to the punch exactly a century earlier when German playwright Frank Wedekind penned “Spring Awakening,” a tale of adolescent sexual angst and libido-denial – or almost-denial — that was transformed into a rock musical in 2006 by folkie rocker Duncan Sheik (of “Barely Breathing” fame) with book and lyrics by Steven Sater. The musical opens Friday (Oct. 25) at City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast and runs for the next three weekends, through Nov. 10. “Spring Awakening” won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor, while its original cast album received a Grammy Award.
“This play is beautiful,” says 25-year-old Palm Coast resident Agata Sokolska. She plays Wendla, “a hopeful 14-year-old who is very obedient to her society, but she is going through an emotional time. She’s discovering her body, and things are changing. She doesn’t understand why or what’s going on, and the society that she lives in does not do a good job of explaining it. The whole show basically is about discovery of the body.”
The City Rep production keeps the play in its original 1890s setting in Germany, but it’s not a period piece.
“It’s a parallel to today,” says Alex Loucks, who portrays Melchior, Wendla’s love-lust interest. “It’s definitely relevant to today with all that’s going on in the world and in this country. Melchior is a rebel. He wants to make the world a better place. He’s like a typical teenager nowadays. The establishment isn’t working – it isn’t working for anybody and he wants to change it.”
“Spring Awakening” tells the story of not just Wendla and Melchior but also their friends, the morose Moritz and the outsider Ilse. The adults in their world – Wendla’s mother, the school headmaster who teaches Latin like a drill sergeant – resemble the prototypical adults of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, the hippie-infested 1960s and Cobain’s grunge era of the 1990s: They offer little empathy, sympathy or understanding to youngsters who are questioning not only the ways of the world but their own minds, hearts and bodily desires.
“It’s an anti-conformity type of play that says we all shouldn’t just follow what the scripture says — we shouldn’t just follow what the rules are just because they are written this way,” Sokolska says. “For example, I’m a Catholic but there are a lot of different things that I question all the time, and that not only helps me have more opinions but it also helps me challenge my thoughts and what my religious beliefs are. And it also brings me closer to my religion, honestly. For example, there’s a lot of miscommunication and a lot of misconceptions about what Christians believe in. Some people are against the LBGTQ community and things like that, but that’s not our religion. I’m different from my character: I don’t give into conformity. I am not the typical Polish girl. I am not the typical Christian. I’m not the typical Catholic. I’m not the typical theater person. I don’t put myself in one bubble.”
The musical’s anti-conformity elements “make people question things,” Sokolska says. “It makes the characters go through their own journey to go against conformity in order to get some answers. My character goes through different situations but at the end of the day she still believes that her society is going to accept her and her wrongdoings – or what they think of as wrongdoings.”
Three years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a No.-1 sensation, Cobain died by suicide in 1994 at the age of 27. Some of the teens in Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play likewise face tragic outcomes.
“The play kind of shows that if you do give into conformity, it’s not going to end well,” Sokolska says. “Most characters in the show overall who don’t give into conformity are the ones who survive. I think every generation has something that they want to challenge. This play is so relevant 100 years later.”
“There is tragedy, but it definitely has hope attached to it as well,” Loucks says.
“The last song is a beautiful song of hope,” Sokolska says. “Spring is coming and everything is going to rejuvenate. Everything is going to be uplifted and we’re going to have another chance at life.”
“Spring Awakening,” directed by John Sbordone, will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-26, Nov. 1-2 and 8-9, plus 3 p.m. Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 and 10. Performances will be at CRT’s home venue in City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $30 adults, $15 students. For more information or tickets call the CRT box office at 386-585-9415 or book tickets easily here.