Spring Awakening

  • Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg


    Music by: Duncan Sheik
    Book and lyrics by: Steven Sater
    Based on play by: Frank Wedekind
    Directed by: Michael Mayer
    Choreography by: Bill T. Jones
    Cast: Jonathan Groff (Melchior Gabor), Lea Michele (Wendla Bergman), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mortiz), Skylar Astin (Georg), Lilli Cooper (Martha), Gideon Glick (Ernst), Brian Johnson (Otto), Lauren Pritchard (Ilse), Phoebe Strole (Anna), Jonathan B. Wright (Hanschen), and Remy Zaken (Thea), Stephen Spinella (Male Adult characters) and Christine Estabrook (Female Adult Characters).
    Synopsis: Adapted from Frank Wedekind's controversial masterpiece about a dozen young people and how they make their way through the thrilling, complicated, confusing and mysterious time of their sexual awakening.


    Review by Polly Wittenberg

    The word is out. Spring Awakening, which just opened at the Eugene O�Neill, is all about subjects of more-than-passing concern to teens and college-age folks--explicit sex (or about as explicit as it gets on the Broadway stage), masturbation, drugs, corporal punishment, homosexuality, reform school, suicide and abortion. It�s not the treacly fare of musicals that are aimed at groups other than the Baby Boomers and even more senior seniors who buy most of the tickets these days.

    Unlike the last big musical aimed at a similar young hip audience, Rent, which updated a famous tale about Paris bohemians of the 1830s to the East Village of the 1990s, Spring Awakening, which is based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind as filtered through a book by Steven Sater, is set superficially in a 19th-century provincial German town. However, the interior monologues of the various characters, set to a propulsive rock score by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Mr. Sater, have a distinctly 21st century sensibility. Song titles like �The Bitch of Living,� �My Junk� and �Totally Fucked� tell the story. When cast members whip hand mikes out of their costumes to belt out such numbers, you know you are in for a potential clash of the old and the new. But it totally works. Existential angst is nothing new; we are now much better at acting it out.

    The Atlantic Theater Company�s off-Broadway production of this show at its ex-church on West 20th Street last year made a big splash. The set of the current Broadway production by Christine Jones is a larger but exact replica of that one, right down to the gothic-arched entrances on the rear brick wall. The elaborate lighting by Kevin Adams has been deepened and enlarged since last year and is a very powerful element of the overall production. Michael Mayer has directed with clarity and precision and Bill T. Jones has infused the choreography with infectious energy despite a rather small playing space.

    The younger members of the talented and committed cast led by Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. are carryovers from the off-Broadway production. The two �adult� cast members who play numerous (mostly villainous) roles--Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella�are new to the group but excellent. Spinella really knows how to fill out a frock coat and wield a cane.

    Spring Awakening doesn�t have a happy ending, but the issues it explores are universal and timeless. Even for those of us who haven�t been teenagers for years, it's good to see new ways of exploring old themes. A palpable hit.

    Polly Wittenberg



    Review by Barbara Mehlman

    We live in a youth culture. This may not be new news, but the far-reaching effects of it are only just beginning to be felt. The technology industry is run by youngsters who have barely begun to shave. Advertisers, who used to market their goods to consumers aged 25-54, now target 13-25 year olds (unless, of course, it's about Part D of Medicare). And everyone under 18 text-messages with well-developed thumb muscles.

    They do stuff we never heard of, yet we still think we know them. But our children, and most especially our teenagers, have secret lives that they live out in their fantasies and with their friends. And like all young people, they think they invented sex.

    This cult of youth, with their easy public sexuality, dominate the magazines, the airwaves, and the movie industry, so it's a wonder 'Spring Awakening,' took so long to make its way to a Broadway stage. This hot new rock musical, based on German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1891 play 'The Awakening of Spring,' deals with the sexual stirrings of young teens and its consequences in a repressive society.

    Breakthrough musicals are a rarity on Broadway, but 'Spring Awakening' is just that, with a script written from the teenagers' point of view, and rock music composed just for them, without so much as a nod to adult tastes. It is the teens who are leading the charge forward, and we must either follow, or be left behind to face an ever-widening generation gap.

    All the adults in 'Spring Awakening' are played by Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, two, well, adults and they are merely commodities, interchangeable beings whose function it is to thwart the lives of those youngsters who invented sex. They are portrayed as caricatures -- the strict teacher, the judgmental father, the over-protective mother -- with no quirks or idiosyncrasies to give them verisimilitude.

    The teens, on the other hand, are all carefully drawn individuals, forced to cope with, not only sexual beginnings, but pregnancy, abortion and suicide. Their pain and confusion, which always accompany the lives of teens, fit well on this chaotically designed stage, with simulated sex, discreet nudity, dazzling lighting, and lots of rock music I could tolerate, but didn't love.

    However, my friend Geri Manus, a former standup comic at Caroline's Comedy Club, teacher of Shakespeare, rock aficionado -- and 10 years younger than I -- has agreed to critique the music since I'd do a terrible job of it.

    Geri here. If you were expecting an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, this isn't it. This is 1890s Germany meets 21st Century America in all its profundity. From the minute the teens chant the Latin lessons in their sober German classroom, one knows they have to break through their constraints, as all teens have done before and since.

    As the teenage angst builds, so does the driving beat of the impressive music and choreography. The dichotomy is noticeable and gives the musical its edge. The song, 'I Believe' could replace 'Seasons of Love' in many high school choirs. 'Bitch of Living' could be on the Billboard's Top 10 if released as a single, and one boy's agonizing 'I Don't Do Sadness' before his ultimate final act is reminiscent of Freddie Mercury's 'nothing really matters' refrain, probably the saddest of all the lyrics in Queen's megahit ,'Bohemian Rhapsody.'

    "Spring Awakening" is a tonic for this Broadway season and a reason to bring another generation into the theater. Grandparents � grab your teenage grandchildren and start the dialogue between your times and theirs. Parents � remember the '60s ('70s? '80s?) while you try and protect your offspring from making every mistake they're supposed to make. If 'there's a place for us,' it's in the audience of "Spring Awakening."

    Barbara Mehlman



    What the press had to say.....

    CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES: �A straight shot of eroticism steamed open last night at the Eugene O�Neill Theater under the innocuous name of 'Spring Awakening,' and Broadway, with its often puerile sophistication and its sterile romanticism, may never be the same. �

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Great news for theatergoers who have craved a new musical with attitude, youthful exuberance and a fresh, gutsy sound." & "A serious show that raises provocative issues. And if Broadway audiences are lucky, it will run for many seasons to come."

    CLIVE BARNES of NEW YORK POST: "The gritty, groundbreaking 'Spring Awakening' gave an unexpected jolt of sudden genius to wake up the hidebound Broadway musical." & "This is a must-see musical, and not the least for the way it's performed."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of the STAR-LEDGER: "A gorgeous score. A passionate story. A charismatic production." & Bold, brooding 'Spring Awakening' may shock ultra-traditionalists, but it's the most explosive new musical since 'Rent.' "

    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS: "The best Broadway musical of the year. It is sexy, original and beautifully crafted...Its story is gripping, sad but also exhilarating... This show does what we had almost forgotten Broadway shows are supposed to do: For a couple of hours, it takes your mind out of the preoccupations of your life, to a different time and place."

    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "Beautiful, messy, exhilarating, awkward, vital: They're all adjectives you might use to describe first love. So it's fitting that you could also readily apply them to Spring Awakening, the imperfect but transcendent new musical." & "Offers a trip unlike any other you're likely to experience this season."

    ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "Shows, movies, TV programs and books about the agony and ecstasy of being a teenager are too numerous to count. But I doubt the condition has ever been expressed more imaginatively than in "Spring Awakening," the haunting, exhilarating musical...,"

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Did not merely open at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre last night. The action was more like ripping open, more like breaking out, more like tearing into the pretend pop and reused plots that pass for new musicals on Broadway today."

    PETER MARKS of THE WASHINGTON POST: "The sweet sound of the future is what you hear these days on West 49th Street. It swells eight times a week in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where a spellbinding new musical, 'Spring Awakening,' is up and running for, one hopes, a long time to come." & "Represents the sort of imaginative boost that the American musical desperately needs....Feels like an invigorating step in a more richly creative direction."

    ERIC GRODE of NEW YORK SUN: "The most thrilling rock musical of the last decade....director Michael Mayer has assembled a superb young cast that meets every one of the considerable demands made upon them. The result is, with apologies to Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson's masterful pas de deux of codependency in "Grey Gardens," the musical event of the year."

    JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Shows can be innovative without being good or vice versa. But when 'Spring Awakening,' a new musical, is both, it is grounds for cheering. It has been compared to 'Rent,' but in my view, it is more original and, quite simply, better. This 'Spring Awakening' may well be the first truly 21st-century musical on Broadway."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of the ASSOCIATED PRESS: "A sad, haunting lyric drifts through 'Spring Awakening,' a remarkable rock musical that has transferred from off-Broadway to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre with all its potent, gutsy theatricality intact. "

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "For anyone weary of pedestrian screen-to-stage adaptations or cut-and-paste jukebox assemblies, the arrival on Broadway of a truly original new musical like 'Spring Awakening' is exhilarating" & "This strange, beguiling show is by no means flawless, but with subtle, nurturing changes, the creative team and cast have fashioned an already seductive work into something even more lovely and lyrical."

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