The tour of Spring Awakening is hurtling audiences - wistfully or painfully - onto the sharp horns of adolescent dilemma.
There's no denying the sexy, exuberant snap of the youthful company. Nor can we negate the high-decibel crackle of the onstage band's rendering of Duncan Sheik's all-too-authentic rock score. Add to that the resounding pop whenever Michael Mayer's filigreed direction conspires with Bill T. Jones' bacchanalian choreography. This may sound suspiciously like a musical box of Rice Krispies, but it is in reality the Tony-grabbing juggernaut that defines the generational divide permeating our theater.
The divide was never so eloquently expressed as on departing faces of opening-night audience members at the Palace Theatre. Those with the apple-cheeked countenances of youth were in a state of beatific rapture. Those with the crow's feet that come with life experience were clearly in states ranging from befuddlement to an ardent desire to appear hip.
Deliberate musical anachronism is not a new technique. Think Weill and Gay, Porter and Shakespeare, Sondheim and Plautus. These songwriters used their sources for wink purposes. In Spring Awakening, based on Frank Wedekind's 1906 German play, Sheik and book writer and lyricist Steven Sater stick cosmetically to the original time frame, while employing ultra-raw rock music to express the characters' angst.
There's no deny-ing the visceral power in this well-realized technique. The contrast of 19th-century schoolgirls in pinafores and boys in knickers suddenly pulling microphones from their breasts and breaking into a 21st-century rock diatribe, "Totally Fucked," never ceases to be ironic, startling and amusing.
However, this interesting theatrical paradox isn't enough to justify the rhapsodic praise that has been lavished upon it. The concept is exciting, but rock music - at least Sheik's progressive brand - doesn't explore the spectrum of emotions and nuances needed to authentically musicalize Wedekind's characters. (Alban Berg does infinitely better with Wedekind's Lulu).
Despite the impressive stagecraft, the score's shortcomings leave a void at the center, rendering the story one-dimensional. Audiences seem to love the show for its contemporary spin on the universal battle between parental oppression and adolescent rebellion. But whereas Brecht and Weill achieve immortal synthesis in The Threepenny Opera using similar techniques, the makers of Spring Awakening depend on a musical genre that is totally fucked when suggesting anything but youthful alienation.