Is it possible that a rock musical version of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s scandalous 1891 play, in which teen sex, abortion, suicide, incest, and homosexuality are anything but incidental be the musical theater event of the year? It appears to be. More banned than revered in its time, “Spring Awakening” inspired Duncan Shiek (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) to create a sad but also exhilarating new musical that may please as many people as it displeases. The collaborators, under Michael Mayer’s direction, have indulged the old shocker with a vibrant musical subtext that literally shakes the cobwebs away.
Especially amusing is the decision to have the performers pull out their hand mikes from their pockets whenever they sing. What the musical’s collaborators have done is to synergize the outward behavior of sexually awakening youth with their interior life through the music. As the story of ill-fated lovers progresses, as do the subplots involving their classmates, the music often takes on the character of a collective consciousness. Unlike many musicals in which the score generally propels the plot, this close to ravishingly beautiful rock score, with its blistering, and just as often blissful lyrics, is in service to punctuate and intensify the text. At times, the company is thrown into a kind of time warp that is exhilarating, as is the quirky movements that choreographer Bill T. Jones has affixed to these numbers.
As it is true of the original play, the musical considers the angst and suffering of a group of teenagers living and loving within a sexually repressive society. The score that supports the admittedly melodramatic text has a resonance that will especially connect with younger contemporary audiences.
Although designer Susan Hilferty’s wonderful costumes are clearly late 19th century, the actors, when they are not involved in a scene, remain seated in bleachers on the sides of the stage along with some audience members. The rest of us see the spellbinding performances from regular theater seats. Notwithstanding the idiosyncratic and often laughable (if they weren’t also so horrible) social mores and constraints of the era, the musical stresses the Teutonic rigidity of parents and the autocratic educators that causes alienation and provokes tragedy for the young lovers. The roles of all the adult characters are played with disturbing if not despicable aplomb by Christine Estabrook and Stephen Spinella.
Comely Jonathan Groff is terrific as the progressive and rebellious Melchior, whose independent thinking attracts the naive and vulnerable Wendla, touchingly played by Lea Michele. Standout among the supporting cast, all of whom are continuing in the roles they originated Off-Broadway, are John Gallagher Jr, as the despondent student Moritz, and Lauren Pritchard, as the free-soul Ilse, whose unrequited feelings for Moritz are reflected in the lovely and lyrical ballad “Blue Wind.” A new song, “The Guilty Ones,” has been added and opens Act II. It is a doozy as are all 18 songs, particularly the ensemble number “Totally F—-ed,” which remains the show’s unequivocal show-stopper.
The lighting design by Kevin Adams is often magically deployed like galactic star bursts to create a series of stunning visuals within set designer Christine Jones’ otherwise stolid brick wall-scape. Only those who are revisiting the musical since it premiered Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company this past summer will notice how smartly the production has been buffed, polished, and artfully enhanced, and how the mostly youthful cast has added richness and depth to their performances. Although it is a bit raw and voyeuristic for pre-teen audiences, “Spring Awakening” is, nevertheless, an eye-opener and should arouse many an emotion while also instigating plenty of discussion. 3 stars.
“Spring Awakening,” Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street. $66.25 to $111.25 with on-stage seats for $31.25. 212-239-6200.
#h#The Apple Tree#/h#
If any current musical theater performer can carry a show that is pleasant at its best and so what-ish at its worst, it’s Kristin Chenoweth (“Wicked” on Broadway, “The West Wing” on TV). The petite curvaceous vivacious blonde with a shimmering soprano voice and an incomparable gift for comedic performing is giving the Roundabout Theater revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1966 “The Apple Tree” its needed shot in the arm. Undoubtedly buoyed by its warm reception last year as part of the Encore series of semi-staged readings, the three-part (actually three separate short stories) musical, under Gary Griffin’s direction, is not, however, a likely candidate for an extended run. Despite the musical’s serving as a perfect showcase for Chenoweth, it is only fitfully amusing, and it has been given a rather skimpy-looking production at Studio 54 Theater.
Certainly not in the same league with other Bock and Harnick shows — “Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me,” and “Fiorello” — “The Apple Tree” consists of three satiric parables about the male and female animal: The Diary of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain; The Lady or the Tiger, by Frank Stockton, and Passionella: A Romance of the 60s, by Jules Feiffer. In the first and best of the three, Chenoweth plays the romantic initiator and instinctive homemaker/decorator Eve to Brian d’Arcy’s surly leave-me-alone Adam. Although designer John Lee Beatty’s vision of Eden resembles little more than a stage still waiting for the scenery to arrive, it does offer space for Chenoweth to beguilingly underline every funny situation and to warmly warble the score’s best tunes, namely “What Makes Me Love Him,” and “Go to Sleep Wherever You Are.” As the virile nonplussed Adam, James doesn’t attempt to match Chenoweth’s playfully over-the-top antics, nor does the always ingratiating Marc Kudisch, as the slivery seductive serpent of biblical fame.
In The Lady a Middle Eastern kingdom kitsch reigns thanks to Beatty’s glitzy setting, Jess Goldstein’s splashy hoochy-kooch costumes, and Andy Blankenbuehler’s bump and jump choreography. Chenoweth is the passion-possessed princess who has to decide whether she should sacrifice her warrior lover (James) to the jaws of a tiger or to the arms of another woman. The best moment finds Chenoweth putting a torrid spin on “I’ve Got What You Want,” and yet not quite able to master the cracking of a whip. It’s pure silliness. In Passionella Chenoweth plays Ella, a lonely, sooty chimney sweep, who is magically transformed by her fairy godfather (Kudisch, who also serves as the story’s narrator) into a blonde sex-pot of a movie star. She is destined to find true love, however, with a rock singer (James). Chenoweth’s talent for breaking through the sound barrier with her high notes is the highlight of this skit. Fans of Chenoweth will be delighted; others will find the triptych trying. 2 stars.
“The Apple Tree,” through March 11, Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. $36.25 to $111.25. 212-719-1300.
#h#The Vertical Hour#/h#
In his provocative, politically focused play, “Stuff Happens,” British playwright David Hare assessed the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq through a clever mixture of public record and artistic speculation. Actors portrayed the actual architects of the war. In “The Vertical Hour” Hare considers the personal response to the war, as seen from two different and opposing perspectives. This provides the only stimulation in an otherwise unconvincing ho-hum romance-in-trouble drama. Atypical as it is for a British play to have its world premiere on Broadway, I suspect if “The Vertical Hour” had opened first in London it would not have been imported. That is unless the producers had the assurance of a star of the caliber of Julianne Moore. Moore is, in fact, the principal reason for the play’s hit status.
The luminous Moore, who is making her Broadway debut, never quite convinces (perhaps she is miscast) as Nadia Blye, a former war journalist now a rigid right wing professor of political science at Yale. Part of her problem rests with the upstaging performance of Bill Nighy, who plays the father of the young man with whom Nadia is in love. As Oliver, a retired physician, Nighy gives one of the most eccentric and annoying performances to be seen in a long time. Whether he is twisting his legs into pretzel shapes when sitting or twitching his hands when standing, it is so distracting that one is hard pressed to listen to his decidedly liberal evaluation on the calamitous errors of the U.S. invasion. Moore does her best to hold the stage but gets little help from her character’s unconvincing political tirades.
There is plenty of room for political diatribe in the main part of the play, which is set in Wales, where Nadia has been brought by her lover, Philip, a physical therapist (Andrew Scott), to spend a day with Oliver, with whom he been estranged. You may wonder why on earth did Philip bother but that wouldn’t leave room for us to see the palpable tension between the Philip and Oliver, made more so by Philip’s fear that Oliver will have no qualms about trying to seduce his fiancee.
In a brief scene, actually a prologue, Nadia addresses or rather dresses down a student (Dan Bittner) for his somewhat mercenary goals, even as he confesses his unbridled love for her. In an epilogue back at Yale, another confrontation between Nadia and a student, Terri (Rutina Wesley), fills in what happened and shows Nadia in a slightly different light. Sam Mendes’s direction is mostly notable for its lenience. The title refers to the time in combat when help is possible. The play doesn’t offer any such hope. 2 stars.
“The Vertical Hour,” through March 28, the Music Box Theater, 239, West 45th Street. $76.25 to 96.25. 212-239-6200.