Eugene O'Neill Theatre
through September 11, 2006
Directed by Michael Mayer
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
choreography by Bill T. Jones
Spring Awakening’s source material, an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for a rock-and-roll musical. The brilliance of this production lies in its raw emotional core which the dynamic cast conveys convincingly. The show draws on the idea that young people feel things passionately – love, hate, insult, frustration – and that these characteristic of adolescence have not changed over the centuries. Thus, this story set in 19th Century Germany is as relevant to American teens today as it was to Wedekind’s contemporaries.
Spring Awakening is by far the Broadway season's freshest and most original musical partly thanks to a blessedly contemporary score by Duncan Sheik and the strong book and lyrics of Steven Sater. Set in a boy’s secondary school, it introduces us to a group of young adults, each struggling to grow up while dealing with a myriad of issues, including their out-of-control hormones, over-protective parents, emotional cruelty and a corrupt school system that favors well-to-do students over others. The songs are wistful, smart and exude the right emotional temperature while avoiding overt sentimentality. The show cleverly uses the musical numbers to illuminate the inner life of the characters rather than move along the story line, thus removing the pressure of plot points from the music.
The music, which shows off Sheik’s range nicely, include slower tempo ballads as well as more punk-inspired numbers. “The Dark I Know Well” is the evening’s most memorable and arresting number. Sung by several members of the female ensemble, it beautifully captures the despair felt by young victims of domestic and sexual abuse. “And Then There Were None,” is a fiery internal monologue by a young man contemplating suicide. It is a raw, disconcerting cry for help flawlessly performed by John Gallagher, Jr. The musical numbers in Spring Awakening are exhilarating and boldly performed by actors who understand the vernacular language of Generation Y, probably because most of them are playing age-appropriate parts (a true rarity in the theater). This show is as far as you can get from touristy crowd-pleasers like The Drowsy Chaperone or Wicked.
The young cast is irresistible and, led by an appealing Jonathan Groff, hits all the right notes. As the dashing Melchior, Groff exudes a radiant vivacity that makes him the natural center and leader of his social circle. He sets his sight on the pretty Wendla (Lea Michele), a sheltered, yet spirited young woman who quickly falls for the handsome teenager. Not surprisingly, the two engage in a love affair with disastrous consequences. Standouts in the cast include Ms. Michele (channeling a teenage Idina Minzel), Mr. Gallagher as a woefully anguished loner and Lilli Cooper, who gives a beautifully subdued, yet affecting performance as the daughter of an abusive tyrant who has stolen away her childhood.
Special kudos goes to Bill T. Jones for ingenious choreography that is as electric as the emotions on stage and to the non-profit Atlantic Theatre Company, who had the courage and audacity to stage the show in their downtown space prior to its commercial transfer. They knew then what Broadway audiences are now discovering for themselves: Spring Awakening is an exciting, enthralling theatrical experience that promises to redefine the modern musical.