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: Skylar Astin, Gerard Canonico, Lilli Cooper, Jennifer Damiano, Rob Devaney, Christine Estabrook, John Gallagher, Jr., Gideon Glick, Jonathan Groff, Robert Hager, Brian Charles Johnson, Frances Mercanti-Anthony, Lea Michele, Lauren Pritchard, Krysta Rodriguez, Stephen Spinella, Phoebe Strole, Jonathan B. Wright, Remy Zaken.
Think back for just a moment, if you will, on your own coming of age: Were your early and mid teens a confusing, annoying, maybe moderately frightening time, or were they a wall-to-wall laugh fest set amid a series of rock concerts?
If the latter was the case for you, then I recommend making an immediate trip to the Eugene O'Neill to relive those terrific times in Spring Awakening. If, on the other hand, you see your teenage years more as a necessary evil than a never-ending party, more about surviving growing pains than slam-dancing through turmoil about parents, school, and sex, this is probably not the musical for you.
Against all odds, authors Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) have adapted one of the most universal plays of the last 125 years into one of the most alienating musicals in seasons. The oddest part of this, though, isn't the work's failure to engage the memory or the spirit, but its having lost what ability it once had to do just that.
At the Atlantic Theater Company, where Spring Awakening premiered this past spring, Sater and Sheik's adaptation of Frank Wedekind's scandalous 1891 play about German youths unintentionally done in by their society-bound parents was simultaneously as nippy as a dirty martini and as harmless as a jar of marshmallow fluff. Sater's script possessed little of the gravity and none of the bite of Wedekind's expressionist masterpiece, yet somehow the story still exploded to life; Sheik's contemporary alt-rock music, which shed a harsh, centuries-spanning light on the kids' plights, and Michael Mayer's firm direction were crucial in maintaining what seemed a paradoxically cohesive atmosphere.
No longer. The unassuming Off-Broadway hit, which needed just a little untweaking to recapture the source play's puncturing panache, has now reopened without the slightest trace of the attitude and seriousness it needs to set itself apart from other Generation-Y angst musicals. What was teetering on the edge at the Atlantic is now in full free fall.
The problem, ironically enough for a show about the lies, force, and threats parents use to control their growing children, is a lack of discipline. Only Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, in the major roles of school heartthrob Melchior and his blossoming playmate Wendla, have avoided the temptation to sacrifice truth for showmanship. Everyone else, from Mayer on down, has embraced the traditional Broadway-musical-comedy approach of louder-faster-funnier, with disastrous results.
The idiosyncratic collection of adolescent misfits who have always populated the play's center are now a band of grimacing jokesters with no stake in their own progress to adulthood. The adults are all played by two actors (Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella, both new to the company) who project no authority, let alone overly strait-laced pragmatism, and in many cases embrace cartoon melodrama full on. Without the vital contrast between children becoming adults and adults striving to keep them children, the ensuing two hours of generational combat carry no discernible dramatic weight.
This strands an already precariously perched score in an even more nebulous place. The songs function not as character numbers, but as commentary - sometimes wise, more frequently wry - on the general state of the characters' affairs, leaping over the last 115 years to speak to us directly in the language of today's popular music. But while many of the songs are excellent (though the Sater's haphazard rhyming is a rock fillip with no place in the theatre), it's all but impossible for them to comment on the effects of oppressive, dictatorial rigidity that neither Mayer nor the actors have bothered to create.
When numbers start receiving laughs before they announce any comic intent, solely their performers' interactions with microphones (whether pulling them from their jacket pockets or dragging stands across the stage), the tone is out of control, and the feelings that spawned the song are not being communicated. Scenes that should be pungent, moving, or shattering become comic sketches rather than wrenching explorations of emerging emotions in young adults not sufficiently prepared for them. That's where the real tragedy of Wedekind's play lies, not in romantic or sexual desires felt or unfulfilled.
Only Groff and Michele avoid this trap of obviousness, and beautifully unearth the primal curiosity - not lust - that first draws Melchior and Wendla together and then drives them apart. The other performers playing the teenagers are missing the innocence and insecurity that make them ripe targets for adults' suggestion, and yet in need of their guidance; they all behave like class clowns at last given their moment in the spotlight. Worst is John Gallagher, Jr., adrift in the enormous role of Melchior's terminally stressed friend Moritz: His jittery, obnoxious overacting makes you long for the restraint Michael Richards brought to Kramer on the long-running TV series Seinfeld; Gallagher's performance is embarrassingly anti-human.
Sadly, he's par for the course. Everyone needed to remain as real as possible while scaling up to fill the O'Neill, much as Christine Jones's fine auditorium set, Kevin Adams's dazzlingly extensive lighting, and Bill T. Jones's choreography so successfully have. In adopting their new size and outlook, the performers have discarded their innate childishness and wonder, and appear and act more like college students past the threshold than youngsters at the brink of it. No play about the clashes between parents and children can survive this.
The benefit of older performers, of course, is increased polish, which is irreplaceable in its own way. The company's energetic musical performances will implant many of Sater and Sheik's songs happily in your brain for days to come; you won't be able to keep yourself from humming songs like "The Bitch of Living" or "Totally Fucked." That you leave the theater humming those songs rather than being devastated by what they mean is precisely what keeps Spring Awakening snowbound.