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A CurtainUp Review
Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening Moves to Broadway

The Broadway production will close 1/18/09 after 29 previews and 859 performances
Spring Awakening
Jonathan Groff standing, Skylar Astin in back, John Gallagher Jr. on chair in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
More often than not shows transferring to Broadway from a theater small enough to establish a close connection between actors and audience, brings complaints about lost intimacy and, in the case of musicals, harsher amplification. Not so, Spring Awakening!

All the Boys and Girls who so vividly evoked the timeless angst, hope, innocence and not to be denied sexuality of Frank Wedekind's 1891 tragi-comedy are on hand, and better than ever. The achingly painful innocence of these rigidly raised adolescents and the cruelty of their elders (no doubt the result of their own dour and dismal upbringing) could easily come off as quaint and caricaturish. But these fabulous young performers, Duncan Sheik's stirring rock score and Steven Sater's on the mark and often poetic lyrics and book thrillingly connect Wedekind's world with ours. The fact that the actors are dressed to fit the story's time and place but with hand-held mikes popping into their hands as if by magic (just one ingenious directorial touch) as they sing distinctly contemporary songs only underscores the show's uniqueness.

The script and physical production have undergone considerable tweaking but without suffering for it. In fact the buds of a potentially major show have burst into full bloom as a a welcome and much needed new jewel to add to the American Musical Theater canon. The alterations made for the transfer are not total makeovers but astute fine tuning to accommodate the move to a larger theater and give this show its best shot at the long run it deserves.

Michael Mayer have guided the young members of the cast to deepen the roles in which they already excelled. Mayer has also steered the actors now playing the adults (Stephen Spinella and Christine Estarbrook) to heighten the emotional shading of their numerous similar yet different characters. Spinella and Estarbrook handle their many tasks adeptly. Though their repeat turns as nasty, narrow-minded educators at the Boys' school are a bit too broadly played for laughs (Mayer seems to have put more emphasis on humor generally, at least in the first act), both are especially good in their more serious scenes (notably, a scene when Estarbrook agrees to send her beloved son Melchior to reform school, and Spinella during a funeral scene that breaks your heart). I can see where eliminating a scene that had the adult actors segue from one role to another probably made for greater clarity but I was sorry to see it gone. Still, there are still plenty of knock-out cross cutting scenes — one that comes to mind is the oh so cool and Aryan-looking Hanschen (the terrific Jonathan Wright) masturbates under a sheet while his friend Georg (Skylar Astin) is fantasizing over his piano teacher's breasts.— There's also the pleasure of an additional and well integrated song, "The Guilty Ones"

With the above comments in mind, my original review (posted after this gray box) applies to the current production—except that the praises for performances, music and production values should be bold faced or lit up as the stage is with Kevin Adams' lighting. As long as I'm mentioning Adams lighting, the expansion of his original design with its remarkable use of neons, is nothing short of spectacular and the expansion of the bleacher section to accommodate additional viewers and ensemble singers all suit the larger space. Despite several additional musicians, the music remains at a pleasurable decibel level. The hand mikes, besides being ingeniously used to establish the songs as commentary or asides, help in bringing out rather than deadening the lush melodies or drowning out the lyrics.

With another off-beat, Off-Broadway musical, Grey Gardens (review) apparently finding its audience on Broadway, my fingers and toes are crossed that Spring Awakening too will succeed even though it may not be the easiest ticket to sell to Broadway's tourist and suburban audiences. With a little bit of luck (like some major awards and great word of mouth on top of the enthusiastic critics' reponse), Spring Awakening could endure as long as Rent, the rock musical to which it's been compared but which it outclasses in terms of edge, story line and music. For me once was enough for Rent, but I wouldn't mind seeing Spring Awakening again when the current cast is too old to play teen agers and a new ensemble is brought on board. In the meantime, I think I'll be listening quite a lot to my CD of the cast recording

Spring Awakening CD
Applause Paperback Edition of the Wedekind play

The production notes below reflect the changes in the cast and band listings.
Music: Duncan Sheik
Book & Lyrics: Steven Sater, from Frank Wedekind's play
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreographer: Bill T. Jones
Music director: Kimberly Grigsby
Cast: Skylar Astin (Georg/), Lilli Cooper (Martha), *Christine Esterbrook (the Adult Women), John Gallagher Jr. (Moritz), Gideon Glick (Ernst), Jonathan Groff (Melchior), Brian CharlesJohnson (Otto), Lea Michele (Wendla), Lauren Pritchard (Ilse), *Stephen Spinella (the Adult Men),Phoebe Strole (Anna), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen) and Remy Zaken (Thea). *Ensemble: Gerard Canonico, Jennifer Damiano, Roberg Hager, Krysta Rodriguez
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Brian Ronan
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Vocal Arrangements: AnnMarie Milazzo
Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller Musicians (*indicates Broadway production change or addion: *Kimberly Grigsby (conductor, keyboards); Thad de Brock (guitars); George Farmer (bass); Trey Files (Associate Conductor drums); Benjamin Kolb (Cello); *Olive Manchem (violin, guitar); *Hirako Taguchi (violin)
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Atlantic Theatre, 336 West 20th Street, 212/2390-6200
From 5/19/06 to 7/09/06--extended to 7/23/06--extended to 8/06/06; opening 6/15/06.
Tuesday to Friday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 2pm & 8pm, Sunday @ 3pm.
Tickets: $60. At every performances there will be 18 seats on sale for $10 each. Those seats are located on stage and mingled in among the actors.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/16/06 press performance
Moving to Broadway next season.

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Mama Who Bore Me/ Wendla
  • Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)/ Girls
  • All That's Known / Melchior
  • The Bitch of Living/ Moritz with Boys
  • My Junk /Girls and Boys
  • Touch Me/ Boys and Girls
  • The Word of Your Body/ Wendla, Melchior
  • The Dark I Know Well / Martha, Ilse with Boys
  • And Then There Were None/ Moritz with Boys
  • The Mirror-Blue Night/ Melchior with Boys
  • I Believe /Boys and Girls
Act Two
  • (*new) The Guilty Ones/ Wendla, Melchior with Boys and Girls
  • There Once Was a Pirate / Wendla, Melchior with Boys and Girls
  • Don't Do Sadness / Moritz
  • Blue Wind / Ilse
  • Left Behind / Melchior
  • Totally Fucked / Melchior with Boys and Girls Word of Your Body - Reprise Hanschen, Ernst, Wendla, Melchior
  • Whispering/ Wendla
  • Mama Who Bore Me/Touch Me (Reprise) / Anna
  • Those You've Known/The Northern Wind Moritz, Wendla, Melchior
  • The Song of Purple Summer / Full Company

—— The Original Spring Awakening Review By Elyse Sommer
O, I'm gonna be wounded. O, I'm gonna be your wound. --- Wendla and Melchior, the romantic leads in Spring Awakening.

John Gallagher Jr,  Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele
John Gallagher Jr, Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in Spring Awakening.
(Photo: Credit: Monique Carboni)

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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