Conceiving a musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 tragicomedy of teenage sexuality, Frühlingserwachen, seems such an impossible task that the ultimate failure of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s attempt, Spring Awakening, is no surprise. The heartening part is how close they’ve come to succeeding, in good measure through Michael Mayer’s sharp-edged production. Many small things are wrong, several big matters are left unsolved, and the last 20 minutes are a chaotic mess, but the truth and incisiveness of Wedekind’s play jump out at you even so, largely thanks to Mayer and his game young cast, with special praise for choreographer Bill T. Jones’s skill at building numbers in which the whole stage picture, rather than the dancers’ feet, does the moving.
Banned onstage in Germany until 1906, and in countless other places since, Wedekind’s work tracks the pubescent agonies of a clutch of upper-bourgeois schoolkids, caught between parental repression and the upsurge of their own gonads. Some escape alive, their psyches permanently scarred by the memory of those who don’t. Sheik and Sater’s excellent idea is to make the pop-rock sound of our own time represent the inner voice of these overtaught, overly polite, hung-up children of a bygone world. While Wedekind’s still-startling scenes jump at you, the kids literally jump out of the scenes when Sheik’s driving rhythms start up. The effect’s destroyed, unhappily, by Sater’s lyrics, astoundingly flaccid and inept even for this ungrammatical, false-rhymed idiom. It would take a great popular poet—a Brecht, Prévert, Neruda, Yevtushenko—to articulate fully the anger, pain, and need bottled up in these Wedekinder. Still, Mayer serves up a rich helping of Wedekind, with a particularly flavorsome performance by Jonathan Groff as the bright-boy hero Melchior. And though better lyrics might have inspired stronger musical shapes from Sheik, his beat keeps the show jumping.