Don't get me wrong, the rock is there. Duncan Sheik brings the hard, angry rock of frustrated adolescence. Bill T. Jones's choreography perfectly reflects the impotent rage of youth, with seemingly improvised stomping, jumping, and head-banging. The vocals, particularly those of Blake Bashoff as Moritz, a young man with more difficulty fitting in than most, are delivered as an explosion of an outsider's innermost thoughts.
And the real problem with this is that's all there is. Sheik's score has only two levels: 2 and 11. There's nothing between the gentle ballads and the fast-paced rock; this is a musical with no shading, no in-between. And what was initially lovely, or initially powerful, in the first act starts getting repetitive in the second. Musically, Spring Awakening just lacks variety.
Unfortunately, plot- and character-wise, the show lacks even more. The story itself takes place in Germany in the 1890s, where parents and teachers unsuccessfully believe keeping the youth ignorant will prevent their sexual maturity. Beyond this somewhat unusual setting, the story is pretty straightforward. In addition to Wendla (the innocent) and Moritz (the outsider), the show focuses on Melchior, who is repressed not so much sexually (he at least knows where babies come from), but intellectually. Melchior wants to think, question, and understand, but his teacher just wants him to parrot back what he has been taught, quashing all of Melchior's curiosity. At first, when we meet the characters and learn about their problems, the show is engaging. The songs are passionate and intense, the staging has effective bits of humor, and the cast realistically depicts the awkwardness and excitement of discovery.
But from there, the book goes trite, sometimes laughably so. Line delivery is stilted (with modern slang present only in the songs), staging is intentionally bizarre (two characters have a conversation without ever facing each other), and there's no character development. Many characters find themselves in situations in which they would normally evoke our sympathy, but our hearts remain closed and our eyes dry, because nothing has been done to make us actually care about them. In fact, the only character to have a genuinely moving moment is one of the adults (played by Henry Stram), because he, of everyone, appears to have a brief character arc. This should be compared to, for example, the character of Martha, who pretty much appears out of nowhere to sing about her father abusing her, then returns back to the female ensemble. There's no doubt that Martha's story is sad, but without us knowing who she is, or even having had some experience with how this has affected her life, her revelation is without impact.
It's frustrating, because Spring Awakening is a show that has a lot going for it. It's visually stunning, its young cast is talented and clearly believes in it, it speaks to emotions to which we can all relate, and its use of rock has the potential to reach new audiences. But, despite its Tony-winning pedigree, it ultimately feels empty inside.
Spring Awakening runs at the Ahmanson through December 7, 2008. For information see www.centertheatregroup.org.
Center Theatre GroupMichael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Directorpresent Spring Awakening. Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater; Music by Duncan Sheik; Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Scenic Design Christine Jones; Costume Design Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design Kevin Adams; Sound Design Brian Ronan; Orchestrations Duncan Sheik; Vocal Arrangements AnnMarie Milazzo; String Orchestrations Simon Hale; Music Coordinator Michael Keller; Casting Jim Carnahan, C.S.A. & Carrie Gardner; Fight Direction J. David Brimmer; Production Stage Manager Eric Sprosty; Technical Supervision Neil A. Mazzella; General Management Abbie M. Strassler; Tour Marketing & Publicity Georgina Young; Music Director Jared Stein; Resident Director Beatrice Terry; Associate Choreographer JoAnn M. Hunger; Music Supervisor Kimberly Grigsby; Bill T. Jones; Directed by Michael Mayer.
Photo by Paul Kolnik