Every generation of unhappy, tortured teenagers has had its own theatrical cri de coeur from Romeo & Juliet to Hair to Rent. But few works probably had the same impact as the original production of Frank Wedekind's 1891 German drama Spring Awakening, which detailed the sexual coming-of-age of that country's teens -- a work so powerful and shocking it is still produced today.
Whether Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's decidedly 21st-century musical version, also titled Spring Awakening, will still be produced 100 years hence remains to be seen. But there's no doubt this innovative, frequently brilliant piece of theater will speak to many young theatergoers -- and thrill anyone who is willing to meet this work on its own terms.
Sater, who is responsible for both book and lyrics, has taken a definite chance in keeping the story set in 19th-century Germany, while having the characters speak and sing in a 21st-century vernacular (complete with large microphones). Perhaps he and Sheik felt that in 2006, it would be less than believable that the mother of 15-year-old Wendla (Lea Michele) would refuse to tell her how babies are conceived, or that the dreamy, intellectual Melchior (Jonathan Groff) would be expelled from school for giving his best pal, the neurotic Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr.), an essay on the female sexual anatomy.
Some places probably do still exist -- in America and elsewhere -- but the Lutheran atmosphere of repression and denial of 1891 Germany is hard to match. Just witnessing the unhappy outcome of the three main characters, one can only imagine what will happen when the young homosexual lovers, Hanschen (the impossibly Aryan looking Jonathan B. Wright) and Ernst (Gideon Glick), are found out, or the ultimate fate of the paternally-abused Martha (Lilli Cooper) and teenage runaway Ilse (Lauren Pritchard).
To quote Joni Mitchell, something's lost yet something's gained in the show's move uptown to the Eugene O'Neill. On the downside, the vast Broadway house robs the show of some of its intimacy, creating both a physical and emotional distance from the characters (unless you're sitting on the stage or in the first few rows).
All to the good, however, is that director Michael Mayer -- doing some of his finest work in years -- and the estimable choreographer Bill T. Jones have created even more movement for the sensational ensemble cast. Christine Jones' bare-floor set has now been cleverly augmented by various well-chosen photographs and paintings on the walls, and Kevin Adams' new lighting design -- complete with neon sprinkled on stage and throughout the O'Neill -- is simply magnificent. (Susan Hilferty's smart period costumes remain perfect.)
In addition, the show's onstage band, under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby, now numbers seven (instead of four) and four additional singers, who sit on stage alongside some of the audience, augment the vocals.More importantly, the script and staging have been gently but firmly tweaked and tightened.
Sheik's absolutely haunting and often breathtaking score still outshine Sater's poetic lyrics, and many of these songs clearly stand up to repeated listening. What's most remarkable about Sheik is his adeptness at so many musical styles, from the girl-group harmonies of "Mama Who Bore Me" to the Elvis Costello-like rock of Mortiz's "Don't Do Sadness" to the art-rock balladry of "Whispering." (One song, "The Guilty Ones" has been added to the beginning of the second act.)
One aspect of Spring Awakening that has undeniably deepened is the cast's performances. The brooding, handsome Groff seizes his moments with gusto; Gallagher is nothing short of galvanic; and the gorgeous-voiced Michele is absolutely heartbreaking. Of the supporting players, Wright is not just fearless, but so supremely confident that he quickly becomes an audience favorite, and Cooper (daughter of Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper) scores big in her solo "The Dark I Know Well."
Meanwhile, two new additions to the cast, Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook play all the various adult roles -- including a pair of nasty schoolteachers and the kids' clueless parents. Fortuntanely, they --especially Estabrook -- bring some much-needed personality to these essentially one-dimensional roles.
Spring Awakening is the kind of risky show that might not make it through the winter. But if there's any justice -- or at least enough smart and adventurous theatergoers -- this one-of-a-kind musical will be with us for many springs and summers to come.