"Spring Awakening," a riveting tale about budding teen sexuality, angst, abuse and lost innocence, is set in repressive and provincial 19th century Germany. But Courtney Markowitz, one of the stars bringing the show to Wichita this week, is astonished by how much the show speaks to kids today.
"There is a lesson for today because, while a lot of social progress has been made, teens are still dealing with the same frustrations and pressures of youth," says Markowitz, who plays 15-year-old Ilse, a girl who suffers sexual and emotional abuse at her parents' hands before fleeing and finding redemption as a free spirit on the streets. Ilse becomes the storyteller for her more timid friends because she has learned to survive on her own.
"With all the recent headlines about bullying and suicide among teens, it seems that some things never really change — just the technology of how it happens. Teens will always face hard struggles about growing up," says Markowitz, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and graduate of Elon University who is making her first national tour.
"But our show has such hope. It says that you are not alone. It sends you off with a feeling of relief that things will get better, and that you can make it," says Markowitz, who leads the cast in the evocative finale that proclaims that "All shall know the wonder of Purple Summer."
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The musical, which swept eight Tony Awards out of 11 nominations in 2007, including best musical, kicks off the 2010-2011 season for Theater League on Tuesday in Century II Concert Hall. Performances have been expanded from two to three for each touring show this year thanks to the success of "Wicked" last season.
In addition, some members of the cast will be available to talk with people and sign autographs at Barnes & Noble in Bradley Fair from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Among items that will be available for purchase are the cast album, the script, the songbook and a behind-the-scenes coffee-table book.
The brash and provocative "Spring Awakening" has been called the new "Rent" as it charges along on an electrifying folk-rock/alternative rock score by Duncan Sheik that not only won a Tony for best score, but also a Grammy for best cast album.
The story by Steven Sater, also Tony-winning, was adapted from the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind that was originally banned for its explicitness. It follows a group of adolescent friends as they encounter new feelings and forces pulling at their bodies and emotions that they can't explain and aren't prepared for. The culture insists that kids are to remain blissfully, sexlessly ignorant until marriage, despite hormonal turbulence.
While there are a dozen teens in the circle, each with a story, the focus is on three: the wistful Wendla, a girl who decides it's time to know where babies come from; the intense, bookish Moritz, who is haunted by erotic dreams; and the smug, handsome Melchior, who surreptitiously looks up the secrets of sex in medical books and flaunts his "expertise" over his jealous peers.
Despite considerable acclaim and awards, including being named best musical in London earlier this year, "Spring Awakening" is for mature audiences, Theater League officials say, because of partial nudity, street language and disturbing topics like child abuse, rape, incest, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality and suicide.
Markowitz, who has previously played such roles as silly ingenue Janet in "The Drowsy Chaperone" and sexy Ulla in "The Producers, says she thinks of "Spring Awakening" as "honest" rather than merely "provocative." She also thinks it could be a valuable tool in breaking down generational communication barriers.
"It is a great way to start a dialogue between kids and parents about any uncomfortable topics between them. It promotes discovery and understanding," she says. "It's like a rock concert that makes you think."
If you go
What: Broadway's top Tony winner in 2007 kicks off the 2010-2011 season for Theatre League Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
How much: Tickets: $49-$69, discounts for military and students, available at WichitaTix at 316-219-4849 or www.theaterleague.com.
Meet & greet: Some cast members will be at Barnes & Noble in Bradley Fair from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to talk about the show and autograph copies of books and cast albums.