March 29, 2007

Rock ’n Roll on Broadway

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There is rock and roll. There is Broadway. And then, there is Spring Awakening.

The new Broadway musical Spring Awakening, now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, captures the caged passion and sentiment of youth with as much shock and seduction as rock ’n roll at its best — remember Elvis? A Catcher in the Rye for the Broadway main stage, Spring Awakening actually stages a youth in revolt. As parents talk, kids hear nothing, and this one-way-dialogue erupts into one rattling and authentic chorus, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Despite the climactic “Blahs” as a mouthpiece for the adult characters, the play uses no other stand-ins. Violence, abuse and sex, sex, sex are staged. Sexual confusion, exploration and expression are investigated, while violence, pregnancy, suicide and a negligent death result from this confined and shadowed world. In one dynamite scene, two characters simulate sex on stage — shocking! And slightly less provocative, two boys make out and another boy masturbates. All of this happening during song! And although songs are constantly used to tell the story, punches are never pulled. In fact, it is most often through song that Spring Awakening says the most.

Steven Sater, book and lyrics, taps into the sentiment of today as he updates the 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind. The setting remains in a “provincial German town in the 1880s,” but the setting doesn’t keep the material far from home. Leading character, Melchoir Gabor sings, “All they say is, ‘Trust in what is written.’/ Wars are made, and somehow that is wisdom./ A thought is suspect and money is their idol./ And nothing is OK unless it’s scripted in their bible.”

The first act peaks quickly with the third number, “The Bitch of Living.” Moritz Stiefel, a perfectly neurotic and spazzed out teenager played by John Gallager, Jr., yearns, “God, I dreamed there was an angel/ Who could hear me through the wall/ As I cried out, like, in Latin ‘This is so not life at all’/ Help me out, out of this nightmare…” Drums thump and guitars pulsate to reflect the hounding and rapidly increasing heartbeat of Moritz. Gallager’s voice is piercing, and the rest of the gang joins in and grapples out from his own nightmare.

As Moritz struggles with whether or not he will get passing grades, he is also driven crazy by his haunting dreams, his “sexual phantasms.” And he’s not the only one. Each boy has a fantasy, including “showering in gym class,” and a “teacher and her breasts.” As teens live in a nightmare, they hope with vivid dreams. In this world, right and wrong become confused, and exploration is hazed. A cloud blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and the musical stage becomes the perfect forum, as singing replaces dialogue and constructs the story.

Although craving sexual experience (staged here in many wild forms), these students also long for love. Adults are faceless in this world — in fact, the same two actors play all the adult characters — women by Christine Estabrook, and men by Brian Charles Johnson. In the ballad “Touch Me,” one boy, Otto, longs for a place where there are “no more shadows anymore.” All the youth characters want to be touched, held and loved. In a world of shadows, these adolescents feel numb.

Melchior rejects this emotionless world and becomes the hero of the show. Melchoir, along with Wendla and others, simply want to feel. In “The World of Your Body,” Wendla and Melchior sing about feeling something, anything, just something. “I’m gonna be wounded/ I’m gonna be your wound/ I’m gonna bruise you/ You’re gonna be my bruise.”

But with “Don’t Do Sadness,” Moritz considers a world where ignorance is bliss. He sings, “Awful sweet to be a little butterfly/ Just winging over things and nothing deep inside/ Nothing going, going wild in you, you know?” The pressures of the world may prove too heavy, as Moritz seems lost in a phony world.

Moritz and his peers have pent up rage with no idea what to do. The second act showstopper, “Totally Fucked,” perfectly captures the disconnect felt between adult and teenager, as the students sing: “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah!” This is all the youth can hear. And sometimes, it is all they can say.

Although the music and lyrics carry the genius of this show, the set, makeup and costumes are superb, each cleverly drawing the audience into the play’s world. Not only do audience members actually sit on stage, but a large mirror also hangs on the back wall reflecting and confusing the characters with the public seated in the theatre. The neon-lighting and stage adornments could be mistaken for a bar or rock venue, as the band sits prominently on stage. Finally, although the boys are dressed in 1890s outfits, they all have really funky hairstyles. With vintage styles and wacky hair, the boys could easily pass as any uber-hipster in Silverlake, CA.

In the mid-1990s Rent rang true with generation X. Now, Spring Awakening speaks to a perhaps less defined generation. The importance of communication is stressed in the musical, and seems bound to ignite the adolescents in our new information age.

But these political and social underpinnings seem to pale in comparison to the simple power of Spring Awakening, which is reflected in the reactions of the audience. This musical is magical because it resonates on an emotional level. The cast is superb, the songs are infectious and the book is critical, but more than that, the audience reacted.