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Spring Awakening
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Monique Carboni
John Gallagher, Jr., Jonathan Groff
& Lea Michele in Spring Awakening
If the precocious 19th-century teens of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening had access to electric guitars, they might come up with the sort of angsty chamber rock featured in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's odd, intermittently affecting new musical, now at the Atlantic Theater Company.

I doubt, however, that kids of any generation, least of all today's, would conceive the line, "It may not be cool/But it's so where I live." Sater's lyrics are full of such dubious stabs at up-to-date, with-it language: "I don't do sadness," wails one wild-mopped upstart, Moritz (John Gallagher Jr.). Young schoolboys in britches romp around their classroom, railing at the "The Bitch of Living," and later the entire cast joins in an upbeat rocker bluntly titled "Totally Fucked."

The anachronisms are intentional, of course, if not always bracing. The characters from Wedekind's original 1891 play, deftly streamlined in Sater's adaptation, are dressed in Susan Hilferty's iconic period costumes, and they still quaintly gather woodruff, conjugate Latin, and dally in haylofts. But they also regularly pull handheld microphones out of coat pockets and sing about returning phone calls and turning on their stereos. And they execute self-fondling music-video choreography (by Bill T. Jones) that evokes vintage Madonna or Janet Jackson.

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It's a double-vision musical, in other words, in which the songs take place in a separate reality from the book. Though both worlds are conjured vividly by director Michael Mayer and his knockout cast, the contrast between the emo power ballads and Wedekind's stark anti-conformist fable has a strange, probably unintended effect: The songs, for all their volume and frankness, let off adolescent steam in ways that feel familiar, even innocuous. It's the 115-year-old play sandwiched between the musical numbers that retains its shock value.

It follows Melchior (Jonathan Groff), a handsome rebel on a quest for knowledge, particularly of the carnal variety. His classmates, especially the endearing under-achiever Moritz, are similarly sex-obsessed, but they lack the courage to seek out the facts, let alone firsthand experience. Reasoning that "shame is nothing but a product of education," Melchior does some extracurricular reading that leads him to doubt more than his society's strict sexual mores: When he hands Moritz a mind-blowing pamphlet that spells out the mechanics of coupling, complete with instructional illustrations, he warns his friend: "It made an atheist out of me."

©2006 Monique Carboni
Jonathan Groff & Lea Michele
in Spring Awakening
The town's teenage girls, meanwhile, find Melchior's confident rejectionism irresistible: "He doesn't believe in anything," one of them breathlessly reports. Falling hardest is the sweet, dark-haired beauty Wendla (Lea Michele), whose tragically inadequate sex education consists in believing that storks bring babies and that her friend Martha (Lilli Cooper) is frequently beaten, and likely violated, by her father. Before Wendla inevitably trysts with Melchior on a gently swinging platform (Christine Jones designed the elemental set, nicely mottled by Kevin Adams' lighting), she begs him to beat her with a sharp switch. This disturbingly confirms his earlier warning, in one of the few songs that advance rather than comment on the story: "Oh, I'm gonna bruise you/Oh, you're gonna be my bruise."

Sheik's often lovely blues- and folk-inflected score, performed with sumptuous care by a four-member ensemble under music director Kimberly Grigsby, is most convincingly headlined by the punkish Gallagher and the willowy Lauren Pritchard as the free-spirited outcast Ilse. This has as much to do with persona as with vocal style: Rock 'n' roll sounds best coming from outsiders and freaks, not romantic leads. The full-cast choruses create the faintly liberating spectacle of respectability momentarily unhinged—even the stiff headmaster (Frank Wood) and school mistress (Mary McCann) get in on the fun at one point. But this studied incongruity often plays more like pop-culture goofing, in the vein of "She Blinded Me With Science," than as a rage against the machine.

A few understated moments stand out: the aching if lyrically wan ballad "There Once Was a Pirate," and a scene of closeted cuddles between two heartsick boys (Jonathan B. Wright and Gideon Glick). They're helpful reminders that drama, even of the rampaging-hormone kind, often resonates more deeply in a quieter register. Pumping up the volume, not to mention slanging down the lyrics, doesn't necessarily amplify the insight.

Spring Awakening
Book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Atlantic Theater Company

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 6/15/2006 5:20:00 PM


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