Kentucky Conservatory Theatre was waiting for Spring Awakening.
The rock musical based on a 19th-century German play made a huge splash when it opened in 2006, winning the Tony Award for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It also introduced the world to Lea Michele, who went on to star as Rachel Berry in Glee. That said, it was best known for its frank depiction of teen sexuality and for tackling such tough topics as child sexual abuse and abortion.
It fell right in line with the programming for the Conservatory Theatre, which presents the SummerFest series in the Arboretum and in recent years has developed a reputation for presenting edgy, rock musicals, including Rent in 2010 and The Rocky Horror Show last summer.
So when the rights to Spring Awakening were released, KCT pounced.
"As soon as we saw that there were other regional theaters and community theaters that were getting the rights, we applied for that as quickly as possible," says Kentucky Conservatory Theatre director Wesley Nelson, who is directing the production of Spring Awakening. It opens Friday at the Downtown Arts Center for a three-weekend run.
It is a testament to the popularity of the title that University of Kentucky Theatre also will present the show in April.
"When I saw it, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, this is amazing,'" said actress Paige Mason, 18, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School who saw a production at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "I knew some of the songs and the story, but I hadn't really experienced it yet."
The show is an experience, from the 19th-century characters breaking into 21st-century rock songs, many of which have titles we cannot print in the paper, to the scenes of sexuality and story lines that leave several main characters dead.
Despite the show's high-profile reputation, Nelson says, KCT is conscious that for many in the audience, its production will be the first time they see the show.
Spring Awakening played the Lexington Opera House's Broadway Live series in 2010. But with a top ticket price of $17, Nelson says his production probably will bring in people who couldn't swing the Opera House's ticket prices or make a trip to New York to see it on Broadway.
"When it came to the Opera House, the audience base that goes to see Broadway Live didn't really show up for it," Nelson says.
Opera House spokeswoman Sheila Kenny says Spring Awakening received a cooler reception from its audience than other shows, but "people who saw it really loved it, and we were very proud to have presented it on our season."
She says the Opera House worked to make audiences aware of the content of the show and encouraged subscribers who did not want to go to give their tickets to younger people who might be interested, which was how Nelson got to see it.
"I liked it, but I am looking forward to doing our production in a smaller space in the black box," he says, referring to the main theater at the Downtown Arts Center. "It's an intimate show, and I think it will have a different impact when everyone is closer together."
It is a show that offers the cast some serious challenges, from the structure to the content.
Nelson says he has been asked several times how to handle a 19th-century character suddenly belting out a rock song.
"I tell them that it's like this is a sort a dreamlike state where they are getting to express things in a more vulnerable, raw way than you can in the book scenes," Nelson says.
Then there are the situations, including childhood sexual abuse, adults who mostly refuse to explain sexuality to their children, abortion, homosexuality and suicide.
"There are a lot of strong topics in this show," Nelson says. "The message is that through spring and adolescence, you will struggle and have pain. But summer will come, and maturity will come, and it will get easier, and you will understand things.
"I think that's a pretty classic message, and it will stand the test of time, and people will continue to do it."
Younger participants get it, and Spring Awakening has shown them that theater can be more than just putting on a show.
"This is so emotionally invested, you cannot not feel something when you come see this show," Mason says. "You will be touched."
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.