Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 11, 2008
Spring Awakening A New Musical. Book & lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography Bill T. Jones. Music director Kimberly Grigsby. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik. Cast: Gerard Canonico, Tony Carlin, Amanda Castaños, Blake Daniel, Matt Doyle, Andrew Durand, Christine Estabrook, Glenn Fleshler, Emma Hunton, Morgan Karr, Emily Kinney, Caitlin Kinnunen, Alice Lee, Frances Mercanti-Anthony, Eryn Murman, Hunter Parrish, Zach Reiner-Harris, Alexandra Socha, Jesse Swenson, Jenna Ushkowitz, Gabriel Violett.
No, the show's truly unique contribution can be seen at the Eugene O'Neill now in a way it couldn't when it opened there in late 2006: Though not a single new performer is more distinctive than his or her predecessor in terms of personality, almost every one is better suited to actually telling the story. Traditionally, replacement casts have faltered without the same kind of intense directorial attention the originators received, but for the new kids here, that's been anything but a curse.
Director Michael Mayer maintained a vague grip on the show when it first opened Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company just over two years ago, keeping his cast just barely reined in as their teenage characters railed against demanding parents, corrupt teachers, and blossoming erotic impulses in late-1890s Germany. When that production hit Broadway a few months later, Mayer had all but given up, and allowed the cast to devolve into malfunctioning animatronics with grimacing line readings and more mugging than Central Park in the 1980s.
The last time I saw the full original cast, in May 2007, even the two or three actors who had previously resisted overacting had succumbed, completing the show's transformation from countercultural message concert into a repulsive grotesquerie of the absolute worst Broadway had to offer. The only sensible conclusion was that, at some point between the Atlantic and the Eugene O'Neill, Mayer had told everyone to play bigger: They did and they never, ever stopped, even when they started orbiting Neptune.
That message, however, hasn't filtered down to the new folks. Well, not thoroughly: There are still a few cases when someone utters one of Sater's lines or lyrics or executes one of Bill T. Jones's percussive dance moves with two or three times the enthusiasm that is strictly necessary. But such occurrences are thankfully now the exception rather than the rule.
Nowhere is this renewed focus more evident than with Moritz, the overworked and undersexed student John Gallagher, Jr. envisioned as a criminal psychotic A.W.O.L. from the shock therapy ward. Gerard Canonico plays him like - gasp - a sane but confused young man who hasn't yet learned the crucial art of balance, but who nonetheless seems to be fueled by human sensitivity. More important, his frequent complaints about his increasingly overburdened life ring as desperate cries for help rather than merely affected adenoidal whining.
Not everyone is an obvious improvement. Hunter Parrish (from Showtime's Weeds) is less active and more detached as the handsome, streetwise troublemaker Melchior than was Jonathan Groff, which doesn't allow him a smooth transition from the boy with all the answers to the man with none of them. Andrew Durand, like Skylar Astin before him, is too cured a ham as the piano player with a crush on his teacher. But overall, the differences are extreme enough to finally allow you to view Spring Awakening with a minimum of artifice.
That's not entirely a benefit. Lacking the distractions, it's even easier to see this show as what it's always been: a dumbed-down, tarted-up, and self-consciously preachy adaptation of Frank Wedekind's prurient but profound 1891 play, with a small handful of hopelessly general songs with Sheik's attractively insinuating hard-pop melodies that are insufficient for any musical as expansive as this one pretends it is. Blandly besotted might not be that much more desirable a state than outlandishly offensive, but for Spring Awakening it's a gigantic step in the right direction.