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Arts & Entertainment
Spring Awakening at the Eugene O'Neill Theater
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
January 25, 2007
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Ah, youth, when the hormones are in bloom and every surge of emotion is worthy of its own song. All the better then to have an insightful songwriter working from the text of one of the pioneers of expressionistic drama. That would be Duncan Sheik, downtown habitué, and Frank Wedekind, deceased author of the shocking “Lulu” plays (which made a legend of Louise Brooks after they were filmed back in the Twenties). Spring Awakening was Wedekind’s first major play, written in 1891—and it’s somewhat chilling to see how pertinent, how timely, the piece remains. Scandalous, it was then—and still is probably for many in the audience (and perhaps particularly the elderly man in the coral-colored cardigan alongside his pearl-necklaced and silver-haired wife seated onstage in the $30 seats). There’s adolescent spanking, for example—and we’re not talking little love taps. More like erotic sadism. And also a deflowering in a hayloft, complete with foreplay and frottage and frontal nudity, a scene that ends the first act. Anyone uncomfortable with the musical’s proceedings might consider not returning after intermission—for the scene is repeated at the top of the second act.

Perhaps it’s a testament to an audience’s hunger for something real, something we remember about our own youth, that there’s not an empty seat in the house, even after intermission. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a classroom of adolescents cannot escape the sense of a powder keg about to blow. Nearly uncontrollable with desire and curiosity, a roomful of adolescents proves both daunting and inspiring—and Wedekind’s text, mirrored by Sheik’s hauntingly lovely songs, beautifully captures the confusion of life as a chrysalis. It’s the adult world, replete with its hypocrisies and lies, which clips the wings of these butterflies, when not crushing them altogether. And in the name of what, morality? Ha—and isn’t that rich?

To witness the performances at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre is to witness the awakening of the slumbering beast of Broadway, too long sated by fat cats and corporate accounts. Spring Awakening is nothing less than a challenge to future producers: “Pablum be damned, we won’t take it any more.”

During a time when the vox populi of the American people has been too often quelled by fear, and particularly of accusations of a lack of patriotism, Wedekind’s play serves to remind us how quickly the silencing of individual voices leads to a nation’s deafness. It’s hard to sit in the audience and witness such riveting performances of characters fueled by the scientific and artistic glories of German civilization at the end of the nineteenth century—and not be reminded where all this is heading. To lose a nation’s youth to disillusion is tantamount to losing the future. Which is why the spirit of punk music seems to ricochet off the walls of the theatre: as a reminder that change is in the air and youth will be heard tonight.

Everything clicks in this thrilling production—the sensitive direction by Michael Mayer (who previously worked with similar subject matter in Stupid Kids) and Bill T. Jones’s fluid choreography which evokes the struggle to break free by utilizing a series of stylized quotidian movements and Duncan Sheik’s aching melodies with their soulful lyrics. And every member of the young cast appears loaded with raw talent; they’re riveting to watch.

So much promise in those faces, such hope and optimism—it’s nearly enough to inspire faith in the future—and not only for the Broadway musical.