Crude Awakening; or, This Ain’t Show Boat

Unlike the previously discussed play Deuce, this one came highly recommended: Tonys darling Spring Awakening (music by Duncan Sheik; book and lyrics by Steven Sater), with which I caught up during the week leading up to Broadway’s annual awards ceremony. It has been touted as the new Show Boat, the spectacle with a story that revolutionized musical theater back in 1927 (and revived on radio as a musical, a straight play, a musical serial, and a number of burlesques). “Old Man River,” take me now! I realize that I am filing a minority report here; but if this is the new face of Broadway, I just got to slap it.

For starters, that new face is partially obscured by hand-held microphones, props that, along with an audience seated onstage and a blackboard listing the tunes, are meant to suggest, in the by now tiresome postmodern mode of self-reflexivity, that what you see and get is only “Make Believe”—an Epic theatrical in the Brechtian vein designed to be stimulating rather than absorbing. Verfremdung, Broadway style, means to play out whatever is left of a story like a rock concert; that is, by playing to the audience rather than interacting with one’s fellow players.

Spring Awakening is not so much an adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s drama of youth, longing, and disillusionment as it is an assortment of clichés about hormonally-induced teenage Sturm and Drang. This high-Rent production (which won’t break even at the box office any time soon) may well appeal to youngsters who don’t know any better or refuse to listen, and to their parents who assume this noisy spectacle to be happening since it has an energetic and gifted cast that emotes in foul language and jumps up and down a lot, as if out to bring in ‘da punk. In its treatment of sexuality beyond the old boy-impregnates-girl-and-both-pay-for-it formula, however, the show betrays its conservative agenda, acknowledging the reality of alternative stirrings only in the form of comic relief.

Choreographed like an old Britney Spears number and outfitted in costumes left over from a touring production of Ah, Wilderness!, Spring Awakening revels in an identity crisis equal to that suffered by an acne-troubled, media-beleaguered high schooler set to pass out at a Goth concert—and it is just about as cheerful and endearing. “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” showtune lovers.

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