nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 14, 2006
The first of many striking things about the new Broadway musical Spring Awakening happens right at the start. Before the show even begins, the cast silently walks on stage to take their positions—and the entire audience cheers and applauds. They know what's coming. So do the actors: they enter with the confident focus of people who know they're about to blow the audience away.
As, indeed, they do. Armed with a hungry, energetic cast of mostly young upstarts, and a devilishly talented behind-the-scenes creative team, Spring Awakening ushers in a new era for the modern rock musical. Like The Who's Tommy and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spring Awakening delivers what most other so-called rock musicals only promise: authentic rock 'n' roll attitude.
Adapted from Frank Wedekind's 19th-century play of the same name about the blossoming of adolescent sexuality, Spring Awakening takes place in the repressive environs of a provincial 1890s German town. Boys and girls are kept apart, both socially and in school. Parents tell their kids that babies come from the stork, and students who challenge their teachers are publicly caned. Not the ideal surroundings for learning about the birds and the bees—at least, not for Wendla, an innocent young girl who yearns to know more about the facts of life. And, not for Melchior, a whip-smart teenage atheist with a head start on moral relativism. And, certainly not for Moritz, a jittery classmate of Melchior's who is a hair's breadth away from flunking out. Without any proper adult guidance or supervision, these three teens are left to discover the ways of the world on their own, with disastrous results.
Librettist/lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik's risky decision to use a contemporary musical vernacular in adapting Wedekind's 100-plus-year-old story is one of Spring Awakening's master strokes. What could be more appropriate for dramatizing pubescent angst than the most famous musical idiom of teenage rebellion? Nothing, as it turns out. Uptempo rockers like "The Bitch of Living" ("Just the bitch of living / As someone you can't stand") and "Totally Fucked" ("But, you're fucked if you speak your mind / And, you know—uh huh—you will") capture the rowdy defiance of youth while pop midtempo numbers like "My Junk" articulate its simple, confessional emotion perfectly ("We've all got our junk / And my junk is you"). Sater and Sheik's score is a refreshing blast of rock juvenescence that works within the structure of a Broadway musical without compromising its pedigree. In other words, this is real rock music written by real rock people.
Director Michael Mayer, doing perhaps his finest work since Roundabout Theatre Company's glorious 1998 revival of A View from the Bridge, gets into the act with a long shot gamble of his own—having the actors use modern, hand-held microphones—that pays off beautifully. The mikes are the cherry on top of the show's overall conceit, emphasizing each youngster's stardom in their own inner world while toiling away as malcontent nobodies in the real one. The choreography, by modern dance legend Bill T. Jones, may be Spring Awakening's real secret weapon, though, thematically connecting the show with a joyous array of non sequitur dance phrases that signify the stilted, self-conscious efforts of youngsters coming into their own physically. Both men do fantastic work here.
Spring Awakening also boasts a cast of talented youngsters, led by Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele as Melchior and Wendla, respectively. They carry the show with veteran ease the way star athletes provide leadership for a sports team. Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella, two far more experienced players, are excellent as usual playing all of Spring Awakening's resident adults (Spinella is particularly inspired as Moritz's bullying father). Jonathan B. Wright's deadpan Casanova-in-training, Hanschen, is a comic delight, while Skylar Astin's turn as Georg, a student who lusts after his piano teacher, generates many laughs of its own. But, it's John Gallagher, Jr.'s splendid performance as the anguished Moritz that steals the show. He breaks one's heart—especially in his two big numbers, "And Then There Were None" and "Don't Do Sadness"—with his funny and saddening portrayal.
I should also mention Kimberly Grigsby's exemplary musical direction, Sheik's sharp orchestrations, Kevin Adams's rousing rock-show lighting, and Brian Ronan's crystal clear sound design. Each person's work here is the best of its kind I've encountered in quite some time.
There are many other things I could reveal about Spring Awakening, but I'll leave them for theatergoers to discover on their own. Suffice it to say that Spring Awakening is inventive and different and great, great fun. It stands as a heartening reminder that commercial theatre can still be cutting-edge when it wants to be, and gives one hope for the sustained health of American musical theatre. Long may it run.