portrayed "the stranger" in Spring Awakening on
February 2, as a part of the Lincoln Center Songbook series.
Spring Awakening is singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik's new
musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play about tragic
young love. Duncan Sheik provided the rock-score music and Steven
Sater wrote the book and lyrics. Celebrated director Michael Mayer
(Side Man, Thoroughly Modern Millie) is guiding this musical toward
a Broadway run. Though a top-40 pop artist (his single, Barely Breathing),
Sheik likes to stretch his wings and compose for theater.
Spring Awakening, considered an expressionist masterpiece,
has been shocking audiences since its premiere over a century ago
with its bold depiction of teenagers’ sexual stirrings and
their consequences in a repressive society.
February 2, 2005
The Allen Room
Tickets are $20 to $40 and are available online now at lincolncenter.org
Review: Spring Awakening
By David Rooney
February 2, 2005
(Frederick P. Rose Hall/Allen Room; 458 seats; $40 top)
Center, American Songbook presentation of a concert staging of a
musical in two acts with music by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics
by Steven Sater, based on the play "The Awakening of Spring"
by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Michael Mayer. Music director, Kimberly
With: Michael Cerveris, Kate Burton, Frank Wood, Ben Walker, John
Gallagher Jr., Adam Shonkwiler, Tim Ehrlich, Joseph Lemay, Skylar
Astin, Alex Brummel, Chris Garneau, Lea Michele, Molly Kallins,
Aryana Rodriguez, Dreama Walker, Devyn Rush.
New Yorkers starved for new musicals this season have had to make
do with the insipidness of "Little Women," the pop pap
of "Good Vibrations" and the treacly shrillness of "Brooklyn"
on Broadway, while Off Broadway hasn't yielded a significant tuner
since "Avenue Q." The latter situation might change if
the strong word of mouth coming from previews of "The 25th
Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" holds true. But in the meantime,
it's worth heralding "Spring Awakening," a beguilingly
dark musical tragedy begging to be produced, that was given a stirring
concert staging Wednesday as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook
Adapted by Steven Sater and alt-rock tunesmith Duncan Sheik from
German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891
play "The Awakening of Spring," this unsettlingly beautiful
work might be the most dynamic pairing of musical theater with a
contemporary rock song score since "Rent."
to be staged by Roundabout in spring 2003 after some highly praised
workshop presentations, the production fell apart due to cutbacks.
Producer Tom Hulce and director Michael Mayer, who collaborated
with Sater and Sheik on the soundtrack of Mayer's film "A Home
at the End of the World," are shopping for investors to reignite
momentum behind the show.
While it's easy
to imagine the blossoming of an enraptured cult following around
"Spring Awakening," it's just as easy to see why producers
might be cautious.
Given the puritanical
hysteria engendered by sexuality in entertainment right now, this
frank depiction of a group of 14-year-old schoolchildren in repressive
19th-century provincial Germany, and their budding fascination with
sex and death, is bound to ruffle feathers. With unflinching candor
and persuasive emotional rawness, Sater and Sheik's songs deal with
masturbation, sexual initiation, homosexuality, abortion and teen
suicide, along with less volatile issues such as academic pressure
and parental expectation.
What makes the
treatment so distinctive is its arresting grasp of the heady urgency
of adolescent self-discovery, the burning intensity of teen friendships
and the innate suspicion of the uncomprehending adult world. Sure,
the material veers toward the emotionally overwrought at times,
but isn't that entirely germane to any examination of the teen years'
hormonal tempest and destabilizing passions?
velvet melancholy of Sheik's music -- here ranging from the galvanic,
driving sounds of the despair anthem "Totally Fucked"
to the more mellow, reflective mode that has earned him comparison
to late Welsh singer-songwriter Nick Drake -- proves the perfect
musical idiom to articulate the story's teen angst in songs that
explore the characters' feelings. Sater's lyrics are both direct
and poetic, capturing not only the thrill of first love and sexual
discovery but also the tremendous fear they elicit via simple but
disturbing lines: "O, I'm gonna be wounded. O, I'm gonna be
your wound. O, I'm gonna bruise you. O, you're gonna be my bruise."
There are a
number of powerful, haunting songs in the consistently seductive
score, among them "The Dark I Know Well," sung by a girl
molested by her father with her mother's complicity; "Don't
Do Sadness," the calm farewell of a suicidal boy; "Left
Behind," in which Wedekind's masked stranger -- a constant
overseer of the action here -- penetrates the unfeeling shell of
the dead boy's father; and "The Song of Purple Summer,"
the show's resonant closing number, both sorrowful and uplifting.
Some of the
musical's interaction between teens will be too confronting for
mainstream audiences, suggesting Off Broadway might be the best
route to take: Sex between main characters Melchior and Wendla in
the woods is preceded by violence as she eggs him on to beat her
with a switch, saying, "I've never been beaten my entire life.
I've never felt."
A girl being
dragged unwillingly by her mother to a back-street butcher for a
fatal abortion might be harrowing enough for some, but it's made
doubly so by unfolding at the same time her lover is being graphically
abused in a boys' reformatory in a scene worthy of hardcore HBO
prison drama "Oz."
Even the two
gay boys' discovery of each other is played, not in the usual tenderhearted
vein of the standard musical, but with an edge that suggests the
imbalance in the relationship and the inevitable hurt. "I love
you, Hanschen. As I've never loved anyone," says the more nervous
of the two. "And so you should," replies the cocky object
of his affection, who sees himself as a cat skimming the cream off
life. The kids depicted here are both knowing and unworldly, fragile
the robust structure of Wedekind's play, Sater's book displays insight
into the cruelty and pain of adolescence as well as the hypocrisy
and false piety of adults. "There's not only the moral corruption
of our youth, but the creeping sensuality of these liberal-minded
times," says a school administration figure, responding to
the student's suicide by seeking to place blame rather than look
While the setting
remains 1891 Germany, the present-day connection would be evident
even without the modern references, the contemporary outfits worn
by the young leads in act two or the increasing incorporation of
synth sounds into the more acoustic earlier numbers.
steers the concert staging with a firm hand, drawing surprisingly
textured perfs from the 13 talented kids in the ensemble, most of
them close to the age they're portraying. Especially notable are
John Gallagher Jr. as troubled Moritz; Ben Walker, a handsome, confident
presence as Melchior, who shows far more soul than his status as
the popular boy would imply; and the sweet-voiced Lea Michele, a
star in the making as Wendla.
and Frank Wood embody the chilly remove of the mostly nonsinging
adult authority figures, while Michael Cerveris' smooth vocals give
dimension to the abstract role of the stranger, which functions
well enough in this scaled-down version but might benefit from being
a less explicative figure in a full staging.
While the lyrics
could at times have been clearer in the Lincoln Center perf, the
musical worked well with the five-piece band, which here included
Sheik on guitars. The choral arrangements were especially pretty,
aided by music director Kimberly Grigsby's spirited guidance as
she rocked out barefoot to keep the ensemble's energy high.
Sound, Brian Ronan; production stage manager, Heather Cousens. Reviewed
Feb. 2, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.