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NY Theater Reviews

Coming Of Age

By Bill Stevenson

With the arrival of Spring Awakening, Broadway has a bright new star...

With the arrival of Spring Awakening, Broadway has a bright new star: composer Duncan Sheik. Collaborating with book writer-lyricist Steven Sater and director Michael Mayer, the singer-songwriter has turned Franz Wedekind's 1891 play into the freshest, most invigorating show of the season.

Wedekind's frank portrait of teen sexuality was so shocking in its day that it wasn't even produced in Germany until 1906. A century later, Sheik and company have wisely retained the play's time and place. While 21st-century America isn't as repressive as late-19th-century Germany, Spring Awakening doesn't feel the least bit musty. In fact, Sheik and Sater's alternately energizing and haunting pop-rock score takes the Broadway musical in an exciting new direction.

The still-racy plot centers on teenagers discovering their sexuality in a society that doesn't acknowledge that adolescents are sexual. Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook -newcomers to the show since it premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company last summer-play all the adult roles, from strict schoolteachers to sympathetic yet unhelpful parents. Golden boy Melchior (Jonathan Groff) falls hard for pretty, innocent Wendla (Lea Michele), but their happiness is short lived. Melchior's friend Moritz (John Gallagher Jr., sporting an aptly rebellious haircut) gets kicked out of school. And the slyly seductive Hanschen (Jonathan B. Wright) charms the pants off of Ernst (Gideon Glick).

The musical occasionally loses momentum between songs. But it always bounces back to life during the tender, often melancholic ballads and boisterous ensemble numbers. The achingly beautiful "Touch Me" and "Left Behind" embody the show's heartfelt side, while "The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked" exuberantly express teen angst. Bill T. Jones' inventive choreography helps propel the upbeat songs.

Mayer's direction is similarly adventurous. During solos the actors pull handheld microphones out of their pockets, lending the show a rock-concert feel. Mayer also deserves credit for his work with the terrific young cast, some of whom are still teenagers themselves. They all have raw talent, but Mayer makes them look like seasoned pros. Among the standouts are the dulcet-voiced Michele, the charismatic Groff, the wickedly funny Wright, and the dynamic Gallagher.

The production-including Christine Jones' brick-walled set and Susan Hilferty's simple costumes-looks great, but Kevin Adams' lighting is particularly striking. Like the choreography, the moody lighting complements and enhances Sheik's songs.

"Oh, you're going to be wounded" goes a lyric in the gorgeous love song "The Word of Your Body." Throughout Spring Awakening, burgeoning sexuality leaves an indelible mark on the characters. Likewise, this revitalizing musical will leave its mark on audiences-especially the under-30 crowd that Broadway desperately needs to attract to remain relevant for another 100 years.