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Spring Awakening

Weeds' star Hunter Parrish makes a smashing Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning musical. logo
Hunter Parrish in Spring Awakening
(© Joan Marcus)
Before one finds the producers of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening guilty of stunt casting, let me call a witness for the defense. The star witness, as it happens: Weeds' Hunter Parrish -- the cast member in question -- makes a smashing Broadway debut as rebel-with-a-cause Melchior Gabor. It's his excellent work and Duncan Sheik and Stephen Sater's still stunning score that make this innovative piece of theater truly worth a return visit to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

It's not just that the blond-haired, slightly built actor is physically right for the role -- a true "golden boy" whom all the girls lust after and the boys admire. Parrish possesses a surprisingly expressive tenor voice, which is best showcased on the gorgeous "Left Behind," and one that can impart tenderness and anger with equal passion. More important, he dives into every aspect of the role, laying Melchior bare (physically and emotionally ) -- and ultimately giving real heft to this still-tragic cautionary tale.

Parrish's presence may be bringing new audiences to the show, but they will probably still be more frequently astonished by this daring reworking of Frank Wedekind's once-controversial 1891 play about teenage sexual awakening. Sater, who is responsible for both book and lyrics, has taken a definite chance in keeping the story set in 19th-century Germany (as evidenced by Susan Hilferty's spot-on costumes), while having the characters speak and sing in a 21st-century vernacular (complete with large microphones). It's a smart decision: today's audiences may find it less than believable that the mother of 15-year-old Wendla (Alexandra Socha) would refuse to tell her how babies are conceived or that the dreamy, intellectual Melchior would be expelled from school for giving his best pal, the neurotic, unhappy Moritz (Gerard Canonico), an essay on the female sexual anatomy.

Conversely, theatergoers who have previously attended the production -- whether on Broadway or at its original home at the Atlantic Theater -- may now find themselves slightly perplexed by their former admiration for the work. While the music remains magnificent, the book now gathers far too many laughs -- whether that's a fault of both actors and audience is hard to say -- and there's not quite enough pathos.

More distressing, the new supporting cast is a tad bland, with the notable exceptions of dark-haired Matt Doyle, who is wonderfully dry as the aggressive, homosexual Hanschen, the strong-voiced Emma Hunton, who does a beautiful job as teenage runaway Ilse, especially on the haunting "Blue Wind," and Amanda Castanos, who is affecting as the physically abused Martha. Kudos too to the show's sole holdover, Christine Estabrook, who still impresses in a variety of adult female roles. (Her male counterpart, Glenn Fleshler, is surprisingly and unpleasantly monotonous.)

And Parrish's main playing partners just aren't up to his level. While the short, slightly stout Canonico -- who was an original member of the show's ensemble -- brings the required intensity to Moritz's solo numbers, notably "Don't Do Sadness," he simply doesn't fully capture the role's desperation as well as John Gallagher, Jr. (who won a well-deserved Tony for his efforts). The fragile-looking Socha does a decent-enough job of portraying Wendla's mix of innocence and curiosity, but she's a bit too modern. Plus, Socha has a far more pop-sounding and somewhat thinner voice than the sublime Lea Michele did, which robs some of her character's songs (especially "Whispering") of their innate beauty.

The good news is that Spring Awakening still remains like no other musical on Broadway (especially with the untimely passing of Passing Strange). But it's lost a little of its luster, even while gaining a truly shining leading man.

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