So there aren't many drugs. But sex and rock and roll prove overwhelming enough preoccupations for the boys and girls at the center of Spring Awakening, the new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company. Forget about the youthful innocence of yesteryear (assuming it ever actually existed): This coterie of 14-year-olds is growing up quickly, without many illusions about these being the best years of their lives.
Abuse. Trouble in school. Suicide. And, of course, their sexual awakenings, replete with masturbation, abortion, sex in hay lofts, and homosexuality. All operating, of course, under the oppressive strictures of adults who just don't understand what it's like to be young today. Good times!
The more things change, the more they... You know the rest. As every generation experiences growing pains like these, much of what happens here won't prove that revelatory. The apparent hope of librettist-lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik, who have adapted this predictable but polished angst-rock musical from Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1891 play of the same name, is to hold a mirror to today's youth and reassure them that they are not alone. (And, one imagines, induce them to buy the cast recording certain to be on the way soon.)
But for all the literalization and simplification to which Sheik and especially Sater have subjected Wedekind's original work, their creation is not unsuccessful. Their completely affectionate, mostly unflinching, and usually serious look at 10 students in a dictatorial German school pounds with cleverness, originality, and understanding that make this a work not easily laughed off by Wedekind devotees - who, let's face it, aren't the intended audience anyway.
What's inexplicably missing is edge. As written, and as directed like a university rock concert by Michael Mayer, events never satisfyingly evoke the constraining prison of physical, emotional, and sexual growing pains that was the lifeblood of Wedekind's play. Instead, this Spring Awakening suggests how John Hughes might have treated the material had he made a teen-film adaptation of it in the mid 1980s. (One performer, John Gallagher Jr., even bears a frightening resemblance to an adolescent Anthony Michael Hall.)
It's all but demanded we sympathize with friends Moritz (Gallagher) and Melchior (Jonathan Groff), who share their sparks of interest in girls as freely as their troubles with classes. The mother of their classmate Wendla (Lea Michele) so rapturously avoids giving her daughter a true sex talk when prodded that her refusals take on the unduly Puritanical echoes of certain characters in The Crucible. Stir things up a bit - Melchior educates the paternally persecuted Moritz about sex in writing, then Wendla in a more direct way - and you've got all the makings of a revolution that will either take control or be quietly stamped out.
Yet this isn't quite The Breakfast Club: Given the morals of Wedekind's era and his status as a pioneer of German Expressionism, there's little doubt as to the outcome. The question is whether the journey will be worthwhile. Musically, it is: Alternative-rock guru Sheik has a gift for plangent, declarative melodies that meet and upend traditional rock expectations while conveying feeling with an unadorned, stark simplicity. There's no question that these characters, locked in an 1891-2006 time warp, would think in musical terms like these.
But while the lyrics nicely complement the tunes, creating numbers that throb with unexpected irony and emotional acuity (one number, for Melchior when the teachers discover his sex treatise, is titled "Totally Fucked"), the proceedings as Sater has scripted them are shockingly shallow. You get no sense of these kids' places in the overarching human struggle, and a completely revamped ending (eliminating a crucial character and a half dozen cosmic overtones) discards as worthless the larger questions so central to Wedekind.
The characters have been similarly dumbed down, their motivations rendered much like transparent playing cards. But with the exception of the wild-haired Gallagher, as strained, unconvincing, and flat-out creepy as the expectation-laden Moritz as he was as the guilt-laden high-schooler in last season's Rabbit Hole, the performers bring considerable grace and intelligence to their roles. Groff is achingly believable as a man trapped in a boy's body, a well-groomed alleycat with both a rebellious streak and a nesting instinct. Michele finds the fading girl in the preternaturally immature Wendla, if she overplays her innocence at key points.
The other kids, including Brian Johnson as an overweight boy, Skylar Astin as sexed-up, nerdy piano player, and Lilli Cooper as a girl with a violent secret, movingly embody their troubles without trying too hard. The weakest links are Frank Wood and Mary McCann, who play all the adults with attitudes too knowing, distant, and affected to register as predatory authority figures. But isn't that strangely appropriate for a show that exists because adults and children usually behave as though speaking two entirely different languages?
Sater and Sheik will have little trouble themselves communicating with intrepid young theatregoers; they won't just speak to them, they'll shout with megaphones. But for all their vivid, adventurous work, they're ultimately saying too many unsurprising things in too many unsurprising ways. Those in their teens and early 20s will get Spring Awakening, but might still walk away thinking it the product of adults too far removed to truly, intimately understand them.