nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 18, 2006
I didn't get Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's new musical Spring Awakening. Sure, the plot is pretty straightforward: it's based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, and tells the story of a group of adolescents who are damaged, often irrevocably, by their parents' and teachers' repressive attitudes, especially with regard to sex. A century ago, this was very racy stuff, and a great deal of the work's impact was derived simply from addressing, head-on, the issue of teenage sexuality in a way that no one had done before.
Sater and Sheik have kept the play ostensibly in its original time period, except—and this is a very big except—the songs are entirely contemporary, to the point that the cast members whip out hand-held mikes from interior jacket pockets and perform these anthems of angst and being misunderstood in a manner that reminds us much more of Rent's Alphabet City kids than a schoolhouse full of 19th-century youngsters. Okay, the authors are juxtaposing now onto then; cool, that seems relevant. But... what does it mean? 21st century kids who listen to Britany and gangsta rap and who watch South Park and Friends can't convince us that they don't know anything about sex. Sater and Sheik even acknowledge same, lacing their songs with plenty of street language and even titling one "Totally Fucked." So why, I found myself asking over and over again, are these savvy kids totally ignorant about what we once quaintly called the Birds and Bees?
The fact is, the world has changed in the hundred years since Wedekind wrote his play (and I believe he wrote it, at least in part, to try to effect that very change). With Spring Awakening's main thesis defanged in a modern context, what remains in Sater and Sheik's version is only a generalized rant against authority. It's like West Side Story without the lyrical love story at the center: grown-ups suck, kids need space to breathe and discover who they are, why won't the corrupt adults leave them be?
Oddly, though, when this Spring Awakening's kids do start to sow some oats, so to speak, they do so very much imitatively of dysfunctional adult models. The main characters, Melchior and Wendla, spend their first "date" discussing the very real problem of corporal punishment and parental abuse—but then Wendla asks Melchior to hit her with a switch so she can experience pain first hand. He hesitates, but then gives her what she's asked for...only to turn savage, calling her a "bitch" and, well, giving her what she's asked for.
Later, their first sexual experience is rough and ugly, more rape than romance. And a (very gratuitous) subplot involving two possibly homosexual boys culminates in something that feels almost like an assault. It's possible that the authors intend for us to see the parallels in the kids' behavior to what they've been taught (by omission, if not by example). But isn't that just another cliche?
Sheik's music carries the emotional burden of the show, and mostly does so very effectively. Unfortunately, many of Sater's lyrics were incomprehensible to me; whether the muddy sound is the fault of designer Brian Ronan or the inexperience of the company using handheld microphones or just the Atlantic Theatre's acoustics, I cannot say. The cast consists of eleven young performers, plus veterans Mary McCann (generally excellent) and Frank Wood (generally not) as all of the adult characters. The younger actors are never passionate; none of the play's climactic moments feel earned. Are Melchior and Wendla in the throes of first love? Is Moritz, their misfit pal, as tormented as he claims to be? The performances don't yield up much evidence. Only Lauren Pritchard, in the relatively small role of Ilse, creates a compelling character (and she sings the heck out of a song called "Blue Wind").
Michael Mayer's staging loads up the energy in the first two-thirds of the show, leaving the conclusion listless and, at times, hard to follow. (For example, Moritz and Ilse meet up—there are two mikes in stands on the stage, that's all; where are they? And why couldn't Mayer think of a better way to clear the stage after the scene than to have Moritz move them off?) Bill T. Jones's choreography fits neither the company nor the space very well.
Although Sheik and Sater seem to be on to something with their approach in creating this piece, Spring Awakening is a major disappointment. Wedekind was able to provoke and jolt a generation by saying something daring and new in his play. But all that's accomplished here is the rehashing of a couple of cliches.