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ISSUE 120 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/14/2007

'Awakening' lacks emotional clarity

By Kirstin Fawcett
Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Normally, a story that focuses on a 15-year-old schoolgirl who gets seduced and finds herself sprawled out on a back alley abortionist's butcher table is the fodder of a Lifetime Network movie of the month.

This type of entertainment – if one can call it that – does not contain an artfully subtle underlying theme, but rather screams a harsh, admonishing message to adolescents and worried parents everywhere. Teenage sexuality, if not repressed, leads to a sticky end.

That is why it is surprising that the above synopsis is not that of a cautionary after-school television special, but rather of Broadway's newest musical hit, “Spring Awakening.”

Based on a similarly-titled work by 19th-century playwright Frank Wedenkind, “Spring Awakening” has found itself garnering Tony buzz, despite tackling controversial subjects such as incest, sadomasochism and suicide.

Like most admonitory TV movies, “Spring Awakening” does indeed have a palpable agenda that emerges between the play's musical numbers. The message of "Spring Awakening," however, is unlike that of the Lifetime Network. While cautionary in nature, it warns parents and teachers not of the dangers of sex, but rather of the bleak consequences that can arise from faulty sex education.

"Spring Awakening," which has moved uptown to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre after an extremely popular off-Broadway run, features a book and lyrics penned by Steven Sater and ethereal, soaring melodies by 90s one-hit wonder alternative rocker Duncan Sheik. Director Michael Mayer effectively compresses the work of Sater and Sheik into two acts, yet still managing to add his own unique flourishes that depict the vacillating comedy and tragedy of youth, such as showing a character who frantically masturbates in his room while guiltily listening for his father's footsteps.

The music in "Spring Awakening" is truly lovely, especially the love theme "I Believe," which is sung by various cast members as the play's two main characters, Wendla and Melchior (played by Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff) undergo their first clumsily passionate sexual experience.

Other standout numbers include "The Word of Your Body," which is a haunting premonition of the pain caused by first love, the blistering, electric-guitar driven "The Dark I Know Well" and the simple yet devastatingly heartbreaking "Left Behind."

The mood of each song is enhanced by the production's lighting, which reflects harsh neon pinks and greens across writhing pigtailed girls and suspender-clad boys during the show's rock numbers, only to dim to the soft glow of candlelight during mournful ballads.

Sheik's melodies are the high point of "Spring Awakening." However, Sater's accompanying lyrics are detrimental to the full development of each character, causing this possibly moving musical to fall short of its full potential. Instead of exploring the tangled psyches of these angst-ridden adolescents, Sater's words (with the exception of "Left Behind") briefly skim the surface of each character's emotions, making their agony and ecstasy apparent to the audience while neglecting to convey the full spectrum of their feelings.

It's a good thing that the selling power of "Spring Awakening" is its originality, which it oozes in abundance. (When's the last time anyone saw a period musical containing modern rock songs, or, for that matter, witnessed simulated sex on a Broadway stage?) However, its inability to promote emotional catharsis will leave audiences cold.

Although the sentiments of love and loss contained in "Spring Awakening" are universal, they end up failing to invoke sorrow and pity. Instead, members of the audience are left feeling like they are reading a story of teenage misfortune in a newspaper or magazine instead of actually witnessing tragedy firsthand.

While everyone is sorry for the bad luck of the confused characters onstage, most will leave the Eugene O'Neill Theatre humming the show's score while wondering whether it's their turn to carpool tomorrow or what's for dinner.

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