Saturday, December 16, 2006

Broadway Awakens!

"Spring Awakening" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, December 16, 2006

Another feather in the cap of the Atlantic Theatre from last season, "Spring Awakening" has opened on Broadway to significant critical acclaim. I saw the show last spring and liked it, but at the time didn't get the hype about it. I returned tonight and now I can say, "I get it."

My initial reaction to the show earlier this year was, "...yeah, yeah. Teenagers with angst about sex and growing up - been there, done that." It just didn't resonate with me at the time. The original play, "Spring Awakenings" by Franz Wedekind, was written in 1891. At the time, the play was considered revolutionary with its references and discussion of puberty, masturbation, wet dreams and homosexuality. Originally banned, it was not actually produced until 15 years or so later and even then was heavily censored.

Duncan Sheik has picked up the mantle of the rock musical, crossing out of the 19th century into the 21st. Granted, it's been more than six months since I saw the show at the Atlantic, but the piece seems to have come together in a way I didn't remember. Steven Sater's book keeps the setting in 1890s provincial Germany.

Plot Summary (Spoiler Alert):
Wendla (16 going on 17, as it were) can't get Mama to tell her where babies come from. Moritz (the geek) is distraught over the frequency and distractions of his wet dreams. Other boys are having wet dreams about piano teachers, their mothers and each other. Melchior (the coolest kid in school) knows all about sex because of his forward-thinking mother. Melchior writes down everything-Moritz-wants-to-know-about-sex-and-can-barely-ask. This essay only drives Moritz to further distraction and sabotages his studies. He doesn't get promoted to further education or get laid when the opportunity presents itself, then commits suicide (the disapproving and unsympathetic father is heartbroken). All the girls love Melchior, but he only notices Wendla in the woods one day, leading to an ambiguous sexual encounter (consensual?) that leaves her pregnant. When Mama calls the doctor about the fatigue and nausea, she ends up being the one to have to tell Wendla that she's pregnant. Woe, suffering, embarrassment, etc., ensue. Wendla dies during the attempted abortion. Melchior's essay and pending fatherhood are revealed. He's then sent off to a reformatory where he gets beaten up and almost sexually assaulted. He escapes, hoping to meet Wendla to run away together, but when he plans to meet her at the cemetery, he doesn't know she's already there until he stumbles across her grave. Ghosts of Moritz and Wendla appear to stop Melchior from joining them and he runs away to find a new life. Other subplots include the girl whose father beats and molests her, and a boy's seduction of another boy.

I bought in during Melchior's (Jonathan Groff) first number "All That's Known" which overlays the first true "rock" number of the show over the recitation of Aeneas chanted in Latin. Director Michael Mayer started an interesting motif using cordless microphones for the musical numbers to emphasize the juxtaposition of the rock music as the teens' inner thoughts against the staid, period language of the play's setting. This works pretty well until later in the show when he seems to have forgotten that he started that way. Bill T. Jones' choreography adds to this juxtapositioning of periods.

As Melchior, Mr. Groff is well on his way to heart-throb status. Pretty, with curls, he plays the late 19th James Dean, but a little smarter and more cunning. When all ends badly, he's still just a boy and weeps with the abandon of a child. The only area needing attention is an occasional pitch problem in a couple of songs.

As Moritz, John Gallagher, Jr. confirms the talent so well-displayed in last season's "Rabbit Hole" at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Moritz's awkward discomfort and lack of self-confidence is palpable in Mr. Gallagher's performance. His fear of authority from his teachers and parents paralyzes him as a boy cornered and trapped in the torment of his own body.

Lea Michele's Wendla seems to have either lost a little weight since last spring, or has gotten more flattering costumes. Lovely and tender, her fleeting innocence is heart-breaking to watch. When her mother abandons her at the abortionist, her scream is that of a little girl captured by a monster.

The rest of the young cast, which has been filled out with some onstage chorus members who sit on the stage along with part of the audience are solid. Playing all of the adult roles, Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook bounce quickly and effectively from role to role as various parents and teachers. Ms. Estabrook is a significant addition in this role. Mr. Spinella has replaced Frank Wood from the earlier production. I was unsure about this choice, but Mr. Spinella performs admirably, bringing a bit more individuality to each of the roles he effects. Most touching was his reaction as Moritz's father at the boy's funeral. Stoic and unmoved, he crumbles in agonizing grief when Melchior touches his chest as if looking for a heart.

Christine Jones has recreated original set along with the complete former-church interior of the Atlantic Theatre's facility on W 20th St. in Chelsea, buoyed by a few hydraulics here and there. It is Kevin Adams lighting that adds significant magic to this production. He crosses back and forth seamlessly between theatrical and rock concert-style effects. Susan Hilferty's costumes are also basically unchanged and effective.

It's an excellent show and a consistent product of the fine work being created at the Atlantic Theatre Company. I look forward to their next offering.

1 comment:

Steve Schalchlin said...

Good review. I found the show to be exciting on every level. The music is sensational. And the sound and lights were miraculous. I hear you're coming to see Big Voice on Saturday. Be sure to hang out afterwards for a hello.