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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Spring Awakening: an off-Broadway musical

The young actors are dressed as teenage German schoolboys in the 1890s, sitting rigidly in Latin class. Their frustration with the demands and insults from their strict schoolmaster are evident. Then one of the boys reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a wireless mike, and begins to belt out a vivid and very 21st-century pop-rock song. The other boys pull out their own mikes and join him. It’s a startling moment, exhilarating, thrilling. And many of the musical numbers that follow are also brilliantly staged and pulsing with energy. They provide some of the most exciting performances I’ve seen on stage in some time.

The idea of juxtaposing Frank Wedekind’s famous play about adolescent repression and rebellion from more than a century ago with a contemporary, rather Rent-like rock score is aesthetically bold. I wish I could say it was more than that. But once the plot and characters begin to become clear, the production becomes progressively less interesting. The dialogue (excerpted from the original) and the songs, for the most part, don’t add to each other or comment on each other – they seem to exist on different planes, and the sum is much less than the parts.

The performers seem to have been cast foremost as singers, and most of them are marvelous at that, although they are far less surefooted with the lines. Most impressive is John Gallagher Jr. as the doomed second lead Moritz. A hopeless nerd when he speaks, he expresses his growing frustration and rage in his songs, the hardest-rocking and funniest in the show (they provide the only real synergy between the plot and the music). Also excellent is Jonathan B. Wright as Hanschen, a sensualist and a gay seducer full of sly wit. Wendla, the lead female character, is well played by Lea Michele, who opens the show with the haunting “Mama Who Bore Me,” a wistful ballad that doesn’t entirely prepare the audience for the more eye-opening (and louder) numbers to come. Melchior, the lead character, is more problematic. In a role that calls for intensity and charisma, the very handsome Jonathan Groff gives us rather wan slickness instead. Not a bad belter, he falters in the ballads which ought to break our hearts.

The plot elements and characters that caused the play to be censored and banned for decades – masturbation, teenage sex and pregnancy, masochism, budding homosexuality, suicide, and a botched abortion, watched over and abetted by oblivious or malevolent parents and teachers – left me cold. This can’t have been the intention, obviously. It’s hard to say if a straightforward production of Wedekind’s play would work with contemporary audiences who have grown up with such descendants of Spring Awakening as Rebel without a Cause, West Side Story, The Graduate, Hair, Rent. But in this context, the play is just a framework that keeps getting in the way of the songs. Duncan Sheik is the composer; Steven Sater did the less satisfying lyrics and the book.

Still, the musical staging and performances are so good that the show is well worth seeing. Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones both do superb work. Currently in the intimate space of the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea, the show will be moving to Broadway next season. I’m not sure how comfortable it will be in a larger theater, and it’s certain to lose some of its power. But I do hope more people get to experience the considerable excitement. If only that excitement carried through to the end of act two.

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