In ‘Spring Awakening,’ a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heartbeat for 19th-Century German Schoolboys

The New York Times

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June 16, 2006

In ‘Spring Awakening,’ a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heartbeat for 19th-Century German Schoolboys

As species go, the rock star is relatively young. Carbon dating has fixed its emergence from the primordial ooze of postwar pop at sometime in the 1950’s, somewhere in the continental United States. So it is disorienting to find the 19th-century German schoolboys in the new musical “Spring Awakening” yanking microphones from inside their little woolen jackets, fixing us with baleful gazes and screaming amplified angst into our ears.

It is also exhilarating. When was the last time you felt a frisson of surprise and excitement at something that happened in a new musical? For that matter, when was the last time something new happened in a new musical?

A fresh breeze of true inspiration blows steadily through this ambitious if imperfect show, which features alluringly melancholy music by the pop singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. “Spring Awakening,” which opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company, is an adaptation of the once-scandalous 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the German playwright who is probably best known as the author of the source material for the Alban Berg opera “Lulu.” But Mr. Sheik and Mr. Sater have not transposed Wedekind’s fragmented meditation on the pleasures and dangers of hormonal efflorescence to a suburban American junior high school, circa yesterday, as you might expect. Nor do they traffic in pastiche, the lingua franca of contemporary musicals.

Instead, they invest Wedekind’s young boys with the anachronistic souls of would-be rock ‘n’ roll stars, dreamers and screamers strutting on stages in their minds, even as they insist we see them in their original historical context. Now that a proper language has been created to channel the slashing torments of teendom, they imply, it would be folly to employ any other musical idiom. After all, you wouldn’t try to revisit “Oklahoma!” by turning it into a Sex Pistols jukebox musical, would you?

The conceit is bold, funny and inviting, and it is matched by a vibrant production from the director, Michael Mayer, that is all of those things, too. We are swept into the show instantly in an early scene in which a roomful of fidgeting schoolboys erupts in irritation at their stern Latin teacher. They continue to recite passages robotically from that famously dead language, but they do it to the lively sounds of a new one, expressing their inward rebellion by stomping around as drumbeats clatter and a guitar strums.

While rock may have not yet been invented in the late 19th century, its confreres in the celebrated nose-thumbing slogan against conformity — sex and drugs — were already on the scene, as Wedekind’s play uncomfortably reminded audience in the early decades of the 20th. (The play was not produced until 1906.)

“Spring Awakening” depicts or discusses adolescent sexuality in a variety of guises, including (possible) rape, masturbation and homosexuality. It explores the confusion and desperation that ensue when the onrushing tide of hormones meets the ignorance of children raised by parents too embarrassed or prudish to discuss what those new urges signify. Two of the three lead characters are sacrificed on the altar of propriety: one tormented by shame over sexual fantasies and bad grades, the other, a girlfriend, the victim of a botched abortion. (Drugs, of a nonrecreational kind, cause the young woman’s death in the play, although it is left vague in the musical.)

The play could be — and has been — reduced to a tract ballyhooing the importance of sex education for minors. But that’s a drastic oversimplification of its richness. The forces that assail the play’s young characters are not just those of repression and rectitude. More potent than those are the seductions that adolescents will always have to grapple with in their anxious souls, no matter how edified they may be on the subject of birds and bees: the alluring chant of nihilism, the animalistic impulses toward violence, the thought-obliterating joys of sex. Wedekind’s play is about the difficulty of finding a place of equilibrium in a world that, round about 13, starts to look strange and terrifying through the distorting prism of puberty.

Despite the craft and integrity of much of their work, Mr. Sheik and Mr. Sater’s musical falls into some of the usual traps accompanying attempts to translate a work of art from one medium into another. It tends to simplify the emotional textures in the play. All the adult roles are played by two actors (Mary McCann and Frank Wood), for example, which tips the play too firmly in the direction of a standard tale of generation-gap conflict between collective authority and individual expression. And in the necessary reduction of Wedekind’s text to make room for the show’s nearly 20 songs, we lose some of the play’s subtle elliptical structure and its characters’ intricate psychology.

The central trio — the anxious misfit Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.), the good-student Melchior (Jonathan Groff) and Melchior’s sweetly curious girlfriend, Wendla (Lea Michele) — do not really emerge as fully human figures. They’re more like singing vessels for general adolescent anxieties, so it is possible to follow them to their individual dooms with entirely dry eyes.

This is partly due to the almost insurmountable difficulty faced by the actors, adults mostly in their 20’s meant to represent 14- and 15-year-olds in disturbed thrall to the transformations of impending adulthood. Mr. Gallagher, so sensitive as a troubled teenager in “Rabbit Hole,” is a little mannered as the still more troubled Moritz. (Did he take a cue for his character from his hairdo, a showy tangle recalling Robert Smith of the Cure?) Mr. Groff and Ms. Michele do better in more unadorned performances that quietly illuminate the confusions and excitements of their characters’ sexual adventuring and its tragic consequences, while Jonathan B. Wright, as a handsome blond seducer, and Gideon Glick, his easily persuaded prey, are standouts in their amusing homoerotic duet.

Problems also arise from the challenge of making pop music function as theater music. Pop and rock are best at evoking moods and emotions or announcing attitudes, not heightening a narrative point or defining a specific character. Mr. Sheik’s music, orchestrated for a small rock band supported by cello and bass, is often gorgeous in its soaring melodies and gentle rhythms, but its lushness can overwhelm Mr. Sater’s moody lyrics, artful and evocative though they often are. And we often seem to be hearing the same notes — yearning, tempestuousness, anger — repeated in song after song; the show becomes saturated in a general plaintiveness that can be enervating.

Still, the propulsive staging by Mr. Mayer infuses it with energy as it blends the informal atmosphere of a rock concert with ritualistic elements. (Some of the actors sit among audience members surrounding the playing space.) Unobtrusive choreography by Bill T. Jones is neatly woven into the show’s texture, allowing us to see how children can develop a physical language to channel urges they do not have the words to express. The intricate lighting by Kevin Adams flashes from sober whites, for the book scenes, to urgent neons as the children enter their private musical worlds.

Although it evokes, perhaps a little too broadly, the mournful comic streak in Wedekind’s play, this musical version of “Spring Awakening” does not have the dramatic impact you would hope for, given its somber story of youth awakening to life’s rich potential for both joy and pain. But its arching sense of adventure makes an unforgettable statement nonetheless. Imprinted on the memory is the happy sensation of having witnessed something unusual and aspiring, something vital and new.

Spring Awakening

Book and lyrics by Steven Sater; music by Duncan Sheik; directed by Michael Mayer; music director, Kimberly Grigsby; choreography by Bill T. Jones. Sets by Christine Jones; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Brian Ronan; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Heather Cousens; production manager, Lester Grant; general manager, Melinda Berk. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director. Based on a play by Frank Wedekind. At the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea, (212) 239-6200. Through July 9. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

WITH: Skylar Astin (Georg/Reformatory Student), Lilli Cooper (Martha), John Gallagher Jr. (Moritz), Gideon Glick (Ernst/Reformatory Student), Jonathan Groff (Melchior), Brian Johnson (Otto/Reformatory Student), Mary McCann (the Adult Women), Lea Michele (Wendla), Lauren Pritchard (Ilse), Phoebe Strole (Anna), Frank Wood (the Adult Men), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen/Reformatory Student) and Remy Zaken (Thea).



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