The title of the new musical, Spring Awakening, alludes to the sexual awakening experienced by adolescents growing up in Germany in the 1890s, or in any place, day and age for that matter. Hailed as the next Rent (in being more of a rock opera in the vein of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar than a classic musical and having gone from the Off Broadway Atlantic Theater to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill), the show enjoys some comparably charged moments imbued by its talented and passionate cast but may not have what it takes to survive as long as its aforementioned predecessor.
In an epoch in which Broadway is often accused of a lack of imagination, recycling old material time and time again or adapting screenplays for the stage, Spring Awakening provides original material worthy not only of a Broadway house, but also a lasting run. Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same title, the show tells the story of the friendships and fates of a group of schoolchildren who are oppressed both sexually and intellectually by their elders and society (all of the Adult Men and Adult Women are played adeptly by Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook to emphasize this idea of collective authority), resulting in increased chaos and self-destructive behavior for all concerned. Mature audience members squirm in their seats while the young cast boldly takes on such subject matter as masturbation, sadomasochism, child molestation, teen pregnancy and first sexual encounters with simultaneous fragility and conviction.
Many of the production's talented cast have been attached to the project since its inception over six years ago and/or performed in it Off Broadway, and the cast's passion and devotion emanate. Female cast members Lea Michele (as the dainty yet defiant lead, Wendla, who feels alarmed by her own urges), Lilli Cooper (who sings powerfully yet aloofly about years of molestation by her father) and Lauren Pritchard's folksy belt deserve special mention while male leads Jonathan Groff, as the rebellious heartthrob, Melchior, and John Gallagher Jr. as the tormented outcast, Moritz, give outstandingly touching performances. Supporting actor-singers, Skylar Austin, Brian Charles Johnson and Jonathan B. Wright command attention each time they open their mouths to speak or belt out a note. Yet, as a whole, the male cast members (many of whom sound like shoo-ins for Rent's Mark) seem much more piercing and memorable than the equally gifted female ensemble members, who, while projecting the necessary vulnerability, sometimes seem too lovely and understated for their own good.
Duncan Sheik's superb soundtrack could inspire audience members to immediate purchase and is perhaps more memorable even than the show itself. Influences from pop, rock, soul, gospel and folk keep the audience constantly tapping their toes. However, the majority of the second act's beautiful yet overly mellow and melancholic melodies do not equal the energetic tone set by first act showstoppers such as "Mama Who Bore Me" and "The Bitch of Living" and ended the show on a lovely yet un-exhilarating note.
Acclaimed modern choreographer, Bill T. Jones' movement feels cutting edge and in-your-face. From simple rocker or techno guru-inspired organized chaos as the children headbang, frolic and jump (Lauren Pritchard is particularly intriguing to watch bounce about in her schoolgirl garb, a simultaneous bundle of rock chic, innocence and sexuality on the brink) to confrontational pseudo-Voguing, the onstage movement always feels edgy and authentic.
Commentary aside, Spring Awakening is, stated simply, quite good at seed level and, with some minor adjustments, could easily make the leap to excellent. Yet, as it stands, and in spite of its soundtrack and subject matter, which definitely have mass appeal, Spring Awakening is a musical lover's musical. Although intriguing and solid, its performances somehow lack that heart wrenching, knockdown, dragout, quality that could propel the show to word-of-mouth superstardom, ensuring its longevity a la Rent (to which it is certainly tired of being compared). That being said, each and every cast member, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts, are sure to mature to full-fledged Broadway sensations should they keep up their excellent work.
EUGENE O'NEILL THEATRE, A Jujamcyn Theatre
Eugene O'Neill Theatre President: Rocco Landesman
Producing Director: Paul Libin
Creative Director: Jack Viertel
Producers: Ira Pittelan, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Atlantic Theater Company, Jeffrey Sine, Freddy DeMann, Max Cooper, Mort Swinsky, Cindy and Jay Gutterman, Joe McGinnis, Judith Ann Abrams, ZenDog Productions, CarJac Productions, Aron Bergson Productions, Jennifer Manocherian, Ted Snowdon, Harold Thau, Terry Schnuck, Cold Spring Productions, Amanda Dubois, Elizabeth Eynon Wetherell, Jennifer Maloney, Tamara Tunie, Joe Cilibrasi, Style Four Productions
Book and Lyrics: Steve Sater
Music: Duncan Sheik
Based on the Play by: Frank Wedekind
CAST (in order of speaking):
Wendla: Lea Michele
The Adult Women: Christine Estabrook
Martha: Lilli Cooper
Ilse: Lauren Pritchard
Anna: Phoebe Strole
Thea: Remy Zaken
The Adult Men: Stephen Spinella
Otto: Brian Charles Johnson
Hanschen: Johnathan B. Wright
Ernst: Gideon Glick
Georg: Skylar Astin
Moritz: John Gallagher, Jr.
Melchior: Jonathan Groff
Ensemble: Gerard Canonico, Jennifer Damiano, Robert Hager, Krysta Rodriguez
Swings: Rob Devaney, Francis Mercanti-Anthony
Scenic Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Kevin Ronan
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Vocal Arrangements: AnneMarie Milazzo
Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A., Carrie Gardner
Fight Direction: J. David Brimmer
Production Stage Manager: Heather Cousens
Associate Producers: Joan Cullman Productions, Patricia Flicker Addiss
Technical Supervision: Neil A. Mazzella
General Management: Abbie M. Strassler
Press Representative: Jeffrey Richards Associates
Music Director: Kimberly Grigsby
Choreographer: Bill T. Jones
Directed by: Michael Mayer