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On Broadway, The Promise of 'Spring,' and a Fruitless 'Apple'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

NEW YORK -- The sweet sound of the future is what you hear these days on West 49th Street. It swells eight times a week in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where a spellbinding new musical, "Spring Awakening," is up and running for, one hopes, a long time to come.

With a melodic score that fuses ethereal pop and irreverent punk, the show is a giant leap forward for the rock musical. It's the embodiment, in fact, of how the genre has matured. While it owes obvious debts to "Rent," with which it shares off-Broadway roots, "Spring Awakening" is more satisfyingly packaged, more artfully conceived, designed and choreographed. And its ability to convey the quicksilver emotions of youth indicates that this form continues to make a powerful claim on the heart.

This is not to say that "Spring Awakening," which opened on Broadway last week, is superior to "Rent," whose messier structure is a manifestation of the less orderly world it evokes. The characters of "Spring Awakening" are not drawn, either, with the same intensity of feisty abandon or affection as those in Jonathan Larson's landmark rock opera.

Yet in this new musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the songs radiate their own remarkable vitality, regardless of whether the underlying sentiment of each is longing or grief or ecstasy. In its depiction of teenagers obsessed with sex and oppressed by their parents, "Spring Awakening" is a chronicle of the torments of the young. But it also provides refreshment for those who no longer are.

Its presence on Broadway, after a successful run at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company, represents the sort of imaginative boost that the American musical desperately needs. With the high casualty rate of late among new musicals based on popular films -- Broadway versions of "The Wedding Singer" and "High Fidelity" are shuttering this month -- "Spring Awakening" feels like an invigorating step in a more richly creative direction.

The show's emergence also comes when Broadway is confronting anew the pitfalls in continually bringing back older musicals. It so happens that last night, a revival of "The Apple Tree," a 1966 compendium of three one-act musicals by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, opened at Studio 54. And the shallowness of the piece only confirms the precariousness of the environment for a Broadway that relies too heavily on the past.

Roundabout Theatre Company's tepid "Apple Tree" does boast several valuable assets, the most important being the participation of Kristin Chenoweth. The show was once a star vehicle for Barbara Harris (and Alan Alda), and now seems expertly tailored to the musical comedy talents of Chenoweth, a Broadway darling probably best known for her Glinda in "Wicked." (She also had a role on "The West Wing" in its waning years.) Bock and Harnick, the team behind "Fiddler on the Roof" as well as "She Loves Me," the Christmas attraction at Arena Stage, were on less promising turf with "Apple Tree." The show ties together three tales: the Old Testament account of Adam and Eve, the short story "The Lady or the Tiger?" and a contemporary fable about a female chimney sweep who's magically transformed into a Marilyn Monroe-like movie star.

The thread binding them is the power of legend, but only the first piece, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," plays to the songwriters' strength in conveying the warmth in human affairs. Chenoweth and Brian d'Arcy James are finely paired as partners in original bliss. After intermission, though, the evening markedly deteriorates, as Bock and Harnick shift anemically into broad comedy and a brand of satire at which they're not particularly adept. Even with a sturdy director (Gary Griffin) and a certifiably adorable star, this is one banquet that goes downhill after the appetizer.

The case for "Spring Awakening" seems that much more compelling by comparison. Based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same title, the show is an exploration of the tragedies provoked by repressive societies and parents unable to communicate with their children.

Sheik and Sater's inspired notion -- embroidered brilliantly by director Michael Mayer and, particularly, lighting designer Kevin Adams -- is that the secret yearnings, fears, frustrations and resentments of the tale's teenagers are spelled out in song. And not in the musical styles of the period, but of today. When they sing, pulling hand-held microphones out from under drab, sexless dresses and school uniforms, they're suddenly, gloriously liberated from the stultifying strictures of their time.

The effect is to give these boys and girls an urgent, soulful language that instantly feels universal. Every generation, it seems, needs to act out its frustrations with those who enforce the rules. "Spring Awakening" is an affirmative expression of the rebellious imperatives of the young.

The actors playing the kids in a provincial German town are all splendid. Of particular merit are the performances of Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, as the story's star-crossed lovers. John Gallagher Jr.'s portrayal of the sensitive mixed-up guy we all knew in high school gets thrillingly at the character's tortured charisma. And the superb Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, playing a whole gallery of adults, confer on the proceedings a tragically misguided sense of how to respond to a child's sexual curiosity.

It's clear from the achievement of "Spring Awakening" that Sheik and Sater are a team to keep rooting for. Here's to the wish that the show be merely an opening act.

Spring Awakening, music by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Bill T. Jones; set, Christine Jones; costumes, Susan Hilferty; sound, Brian Ronan; music director, Kimberly Grigsby. With Lauren Pritchard, Lilli Cooper, Gideon Glick, Skylar Astin, Remy Zaken. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.

The Apple Tree, music, book and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Gary Griffin. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; hair and wigs, Charles LaPointe. With Marc Kudisch, Walter Charles. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 11 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. Call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org.

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