Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

THEATER

SPRING AWAKENING
Book & lyrics by Steven Sater; music by Duncan Sheik
choreographed by Bill T. Jones; directed by Michael Mayer
Runs through August 5th at Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street (Between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Tickets through www.telecharge.com

Photo by Monique Carboni

Groping in the dark: Lea Michele and Johnathan Groff feel their way to sexual enlightenment in Michael Mayer’s adaptation of “Spring Awakening.”

Smells like teen spirit

Spring Awakening’ is passionate, exciting — and underdeveloped

By Rachel Fershleiser

A century ago, German playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” was finally produced, fifteen years after it was written. The controversial drama, about a group of naïve teenagers whose budding sexual urges lead them to disaster, was intermittently edited or outright banned until the early nineteen seventies. Last week an uncensored rock-musical adaptation debuted at Atlantic Theater Company. At its heart, it seems to be an allegory of sex education, a theme that retains its relevance in the Bush years. But the litany of problems addressed — teen sex, masturbation, homosexuality, suicide, child abuse, abortion — once so scandalous, comes off more like a musical episode of Degrassi Junior High.

The production is impassioned but vastly imperfect, with a score by pop star Duncan Shiek and book and lyrics by frequent Shiek-collaborator Steven Sater, who has set Spring Awakening in its original era. It features period costumes, German character names, and teenagers who wonder where babies come from. It also features an on-stage band, music video choreography, and uniformed schoolboys and pigtailed young girls who pull mikes from their pockets and rock out. What is initially jarring soon begins to work — the musical numbers don’t feel anachronistic because they take place, not in 1890s provincial Germany, but in the minds of the blossoming boys and girls who live there. Since long before the advent of rock and roll, adolescents have existed in a kind of double consciousness — trying to fit in at school and at home, while silently screaming inside.

Spring Awakening is at its best when it is angry. An early scene in which a Latin class explodes into imagined rebellion is electric, powerful, and an indication of this production’s potential. As the boys scream into their microphones, pump their fists and stomp their feet, their knickers and knee socks suddenly read as skinny jeans in a Williamsburg rock club. On closer inspection, it appears that the most rebellious of the bunch are even wearing Chuck Taylors with their nineteenth-century suits.

John Gallagher, Jr, a standout in plays like “Kimberly Akimbo” and “Rabbit Hole,” and also an indie rock musician, best embodies this physicality and sound. As the troubled Moritz, he maintains a taut intensity, even through sex jokes and dance numbers. As Melchior, the nihilistic golden boy, and Wendla, the doomed beauty, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele are likeable if distant. Michele’s line delivery is often hysterical and never believable, but then, none of these characters really breathe. Instead they are stylistic portraits, everykids who express the fears and desires of being fourteen in an increasingly complicated world.

The many adult characters in Spring Awakening are secondary, all portrayed by two actors, and their constant condescension drones like the “mwah, mwah” of Peanuts cartoons. The theatre space, too, becomes a voice of oppression; Atlantic operates out of a converted church, all heavy exposed brick and gothic doorways. Four musicians and twenty audience members seated on stage provide the constant surveillance that can be so aggravating in adolescence. Perhaps if these teens had the freedom of driver’s licenses to look forward to, things would have ended less tragically for all of them.

The score is pleasant pop rock, but largely forgettable. The best song is another moment of rage, a full cast head-banging freak-out called “Totally Fucked.” Other songs can be as irksome as that one is exhilarating. “I try and just kick it, but then, what can I do?” the girls sing sweetly, channeling ‘N Sync, “We’ve all got our junk, and my junk is you.” Other cringe-worthy top 40 homages include Moritz’s curiosity about “what it feels like for a woman” and Melchior’s positively Britney-ish observation that he’s both “a man and a child.” Bill T. Jones’s choreography, which so perfectly embodies teen angst in upbeat numbers, devolves in sentimental ones to creepy caresses. One gesture frequently performed by both genders appears to be a home breast exam.

Despite a well-received American Songbook concert staging at Lincoln Center and several workshops, the show still cries out for dramaturgy. Michael Mayer’s sharp and dynamic production is thrilling to watch, but the script suffers from over-earnestness and clichés. ‘Spring Awakening,’ is in essence, much like the part of life it portrays —problematic and frustrating, but crackling with energy and a sense that something new and wonderful might just be floating on the horizon.

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