Charles Runnells, Fort Myers News-PressPublished 9:00 a.m. ET Aug. 7, 2019
Teen sex. Suicide. Rape. Masturbation. Abortion. Child abuse.
“They don’t sugarcoat it at all!” says 18-year-old Cape Coral actor Katie Means, who plays the naïve teenager Wendla. “This show is really, I think, unlike any others, and it hits on topics that people are scared to talk about.
“But it also highlights the dangers that come when you don’t talk about this kind of stuff.”
“Spring Awakening” obviously struck a nerve when it opened on Broadway in 2006. The rock musical eventually scored eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and went on to be produced at high schools nationwide and get featured prominently on the TV show “Rise.”
All that, despite its controversial subject matter and Duncan Sheik-penned songs with titles like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F—–.”
Parents might be shocked by some of the show’s language and themes, says director Kody C. Jones of Florida Repertory Theatre’s Education Department. But it’s nothing new for teens.
“If there’s anybody out there who thinks a 15-, 16-, 17- or 18-year old has never said the f-word, then we should do some soul searching about how we view the community around us,” Jones says and laughs.
Florida Rep’s “Spring Awakening” marks the first time the musical has played Southwest Florida since 2010, when the touring Broadway show came to Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. But it makes sense that the teens from the theater’s Education Program will be performing the youth-theater production.
Like many others her age, Means says she connects deeply with the musical’s songs and its story about two German teens navigating sex, love, self-discovery and growing up.
“Thankfully, a lot of the stuff in this show is not what I’ve gone through, but I know people that have,” Means says. “People will say, ‘Oh, teens don’t have sex.’ But this stuff really happens.
“That’s why I was drawn to it: I see it as an outlet to talk about these things.”
The coming-of-age musical adapts German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama of the same name. The story follows a group of teens who rebel against their parents, fall in and out of love, and explore their sexuality — sometimes with tragic results.
Means and Connecticut actor Isaac Kueber star as Wendla and Melchior, two teens who have known each other all their lives in a small German town. Then, one day, they re-discover each other and fall in love.
Wendla doesn’t know much about the world, and that’s why she’s drawn to the gentle, worldly Melchior.
“He knows a lot,” says Kueber, 20, who grew up in a small Kentucky town that reminds him a lot of the German one in “Spring Awakening.” “And his goal is to bring other people to that knowledge and power that he has.”
Florida Rep doesn’t tone down the show’s language or themes for the Fort Myers production, Jones says. But there’s one obvious difference from the version audiences saw on Broadway or at Mann Hall: The nudity and simulated sex.
Jones and his team didn’t change a word of the script, he says, but they did make a directorial choice. Instead of showing sex and nudity onstage, they use shadow dancers to convey that and other key emotional moments through interpretative movement and modern dance.
“There are some things we shy away from a little bit, but we don’t omit anything,” Jones says. “We just find a different way to communicate it. So instead of seeing the literal motions of sex and having nudity, we found another way.”
Jones worked with North Carolina choreographer Susan Young to come up with the choreography.
“I’ve had some colleagues say, ‘Well isn’t that a cop-out?’” Jones says. “And I say, ‘Well no, I think it’s a stronger way to communicate these themes.’ Because nudity and sometimes some of that literal physicalization onstage can be hard to watch, especially with younger cast members.”
Jones doesn’t want people to see simulated sex and automatically shut down. This way, they’ll still be receptive to the show’s ideas instead of their brains screaming, “They’re naked!”
“It’s alienating,” Jones says. “People will leave a Broadway production of ‘Spring Awakening’ talking about the sex and not talking about the moment it’s supposed to be representing.
“They’re not connecting to those different depths and levels of what these kids are going through.”
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)
If you go
What: Florida Rep’s “Spring Awakening”
When: Opens Friday and continues through Aug. 17. Performances are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, 2267 Bay St., downtown Fort Myers.
Tickets: $25-$25 for adults, $10 for students.
Tickets: 332–4488 or floridarep.org