Eugene O’Neill Theatre
230 West 49th St
between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Currently playing, an open ended run
A happy surprise in musical theater, SPRING AWAKENING arrives on Broadway from its success last season at The Atlantic Theater. Here’s a show that has grown through experience. While the Off Broadway production was certainly edgy, the Broadway version feels more grounded.
For one thing, Bill T. Jones gymnastic choreography is played down. Instead, the focus is on the jutting movements of Melchior, the romantic lead whose forceful moves translate quite literally in the love making scene.
It also seems only fitting, in this play about the sexual repression of youth, that the roles of the elders have been replaced. Frank Woods’ twisted version of an ugly, ruthless patriarch, teacher and minister is portrayed here by Stephen Spinella. While he is more subtle in his approach to these roles, Spinella’s intense realism makes the truth look harsher than we would have imagined. As his counterpart, Christine Eastabrook portrays all of The Adult Women. Her characterizations are rife with the tension between innocence and malevolence.
But the really important characters here are the teenagers who cry out “like in Latin this is so not it all”. Steven Sater’s lyrics at times echo the young Bob Dylan and Duncan Sheik’s dreamy melodies bring to mind the songs of Nora Jones. But here those light jazzy rhythms are infused with the agony of these tortured youths. And it is through these ballads that we hear their introspective thoughts. For instance, “The Dark I Know Well” in which Martha confesses to being abused by her father and, of course, “Mama Who Bore Me” with its soulful and ironic message foreshadowing Wendla’s tragic destiny.
Clearly, the most dynamic songs here are in the hands of John Gallagher Jr. as Moritz, the kid who just never gets to fit in. What a grinding rock quality Gallagher brings to songs like “The Bitch of Living”. As his best friend and the romantic lead Melchior, Jonathan Groff is handsome, an apparently unsuspecting catalyst of the demise of others. And Lea Michele’s Wendla brings darkness and mystery to the girl he loves.
While based on a 19thcentury drama, THE AWAKENING OF SPRING by Frank Wedekind, this picture of repressive and hypocritical sexual mores holds all the shock value of the original, censored in Germany more than 100 years ago.