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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
—— The Original Spring Awakening Review By Elyse Sommer
For teens, Spring brings a burst of hormones along with blossoming cherry trees and roses. In his best known play, Spring Awakening (initially known as The Awakening of Spring), German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) drew a powerful portrait of a group of pubescent boys and girls raised in a rigid home, church and educational environment that precludes guidance for dealing with the manifestation of their sexual urges.
Wedekind's poetic but very frank drama was written in 1891 but created such shock waves that it wasn't produced until 1905, at which time it had a solid run despite critics who failed to acknowledge its artistic treatment of the clash between these adolescents and their harsh parents and teachers. When the first English production was produced in this country during World War II under the auspices of the Medical Review of Reviews some of the negative criticism was inflamed by anti-German feelings.
People with the same mindset as Wedekind's original detractors would undoubtedly find the Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's musical adaptation of Spring Awakening now playing at the Atlantic Theater in Chelsea even more distasteful. But I think Wedekind would be fascinated and thrilled to see how book writer and lyricist Stephen Sater and songwriter Duncan Sheik have managed to meld the early twentieth century milieu with the present — especially given the strong boost supplied by Michael Mayer's inspired direction, Bill T. Jones' propulsive choreography and the extraordinarily talented young actors
Thrilling and fascinating are also apt adjectives to describe the probable reaction of theater goers hungry for the thrill of seeing a musical that dares to do something really different. How fascinating to see that something new can be executed with such originality, without big name performers or complicated scenic pyrotechnics.
For most of us the prudishness permeating the provincial town of Wedekind's play will seem like a slice of history. Yet the vivid depiction of how ignorance and false righteousness can have tragic consequences for sensitive teenagers still shocks. Sad to say, the growing furor about a return to old-fashioned "values" sparked by the growth of the religious right also adds an uncomfortably current touch.
To musicalize this period piece with a rock score and lyrics that atypically function primarily as interior musical monologues is a gamble. But it's a gamble that has paid off richly.
The mostly inner voice singing makes for songs that are more like pauses than a means for moving the narrative forward. But under Michael Mayer's direction these musical equivalents of lengthy asides in a drama are so beautifully staged and integrated that the century-apart worlds connect without jarring. Whether spoken or sung, this Spring Awakening reinforces the two world connection. Customs may change but teenaged psyches will always have to weather the onslaught of hormonal urges and the mixed feelings of hope and insecurity that are part of approaching adulthood.
Anachronistic as the idea of packaging a more than hundred-year-old play as a rock popera may sound, it's somehow easy to accept these boys and girls dressed in Susan Hilferty's artfully authentic period outfits whipping out hand-held, wireless mikes and singing Sater's at times in your face lyrics instead of the hymns one might expect in this setting — for example, "Totally Fucked, " which prompts a show stopping choreographed orgy of foot-stomping scene that includes even the adults. The appealingly melodic music, some acoustic-guitar dominated and some more hard-driving rock, is gorgeously sung by the talented performers who, though probably in their twenties, come across as credible teenagers.
Making room for twenty-one songs, undoubtedly called for some omissions from the source material. However, except for the elimination of a masked figure appearing as a final life giving force, Sater's book sticks to and captures the essential plot elements; and his lyrics seem to fill in any other gaps resulting from editing Thus we see all the manifestations of the sexual impulse Wedekind so boldly and ahead of his time touched on: masturbation, masochism (stirred up by one young girl's revelations about her father's abuse, which most likely including rape as well as beatings), first sexual boy-girl and boy-boy unions. With elders whose prudishness and rigid conformity make them more harmful then helpful, these sexual stirrings lead to rebellious anthems like"The Bitch of Living" and wistful expressions of sexual yearning as in "Touch Me." make some major tragedies inevitable.
Though the show follows the "awakening" of eleven adolescents, it focuses on the friendship between the brilliant and handsome Melchior (Jonathan Groff) and the awkward, under-achiever Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.) whose poor school record isn't helped by an onslaught of troubling sexual dreams. The independent Melchior has secretly studied up on the intricacies of sex and shares his enlightenment with Moritz but with dire results. Melchior's romance with Wendla (Lea Michele), another innocent (her mother still talks about the stork delivering babies) is also disaster bound.
Groff has matinee idol good looks and sings like a dream. Gallagher, his hair pouffed up like a young Kramer from Seinfeld, more than delivers on the promise of his impressive Broadway debut in Rabbit Hole. Michele, breaks your heart as the naive yet passionate Wendla.
While it might seem that Frank Wood and Mary McCann who play all the adult parts don't differentiate enough between their roles that's exactly the point — the mothers, fathers, teachers, minister and doctor they portay are all alike in their rigidity and unhelpfulness. In one scene, director Mayer cleverly has McCann circle the stage, deliver a note to Wood as Melchior's father, and then circle him again and join him as Melchior's mother. Mayer's imaginative directorial touches also include some knockout inter-connected scenes. His staging gets a strong assist from Christine Jones basically unadorned set, ravishingly lit by Kevin Adams.
Taking a cue from John Doyle (whose casting of instrument playing actor-singers has bought us an entirely newly imagined Sweeney Todd), Mayer has cast members Skylar Astin and Lauren Pritchard do occasional double duty at the piano positioned upstage with the four excellent musicians. He has also ingeniously made room for twenty-one audience members at either side of the stage, with inactive actors seated in their midst. These budget-priced seats are not only a smart young audience building but give a sense of a whole town of characters.
Since the action is all directed forward towards the regular audience, those $10 seats might not make for an ideal viewing perspective. But I'm sure there'll be twenty-one people eager not just to grab this bargain but to actually be part of this unique show.
The show, reviewed 6/16/06 , began playing at the Atlantic Theatre, 336 West 20th Street from 5/19/06 and its original July closing date was extended to 8/06/06. Tickets were $60 with 18 seats on stage for $10 each. The program's cast list was as follows: Skylar Astin (Georg/Reformatory Student -- occasional pianist), 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--occasional pianist), Phoebe Strole (Anna), Frank Wood (the Adult Men), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen/Reformatory Student) and Remy Zaken (Thea).
Note: The song list, with the inclusion of an additional second act song, has been moved to my above review of the Broadway transfer.
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