Three weeks after history buff Frank Wildhorn’s egregiously overwrought tuner “Rudolf” limped onto the stage of Vienna’s Raimund Theater, the German-language premiere of “Spring Awakening” opened across town at the Ronacher. The triumph of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony winner will hopefully send a strong message: the Austro-musical is dead and it’s time to bury it.
Year after year since “Elisabeth,” the highest-grossing German-language tuner of all time, opened in the early 1990s and toured throughout the Eastern Hemisphere for more than a decade, Austrians have annually dealt with the likes of “Dance of the Vampires,” “Mozart!,” “Wake Up,” “Barbarella” and “Rebecca,” shows which may have found broader success a few decades ago in the heyday of their inspiration — “Les Miserables” and the complete works of Andrew Lloyd Webber — but now seem mediocre imitations at best.
Wildhorn, composer of “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Dracula, the Musical,” has had more success in Central Europe than on Broadway; here he delivers another quasi-operatic historical epic. More painful than his undistinguished score are the banal lyrics and endlessly talky book by Jack Murphy.
In the early 20th century, the final years of the soon-to-perish Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rudolf (Drew Sarich), the last heir to the throne, is forced into a mutually hateful marriage with crown princess Stephanie (shrill-voiced Wietske van Tongeren). When he falls instead for Baroness Mary Vetsera (Lisa Antoni), their affair becomes the scandal of Vienna.
The show’s greatest flaw is that it’s dominated not by the classic ingredients of great musicals — love, family or cultural conflicts, history — but rather abstruse politics which, through the machinations of Prime Minister Eduard Taaffe (Uwe Kroger) distances Rudolf from his father, the frail, old Emperor Franz Joseph (Claus Dam).
Family and friends — particularly Mary’s chum Countess Larisch (Carin Filipcic) — offer varying advice, but the weak-minded Rudolf can think of nothing better than to form a suicide pact with Mary, to be carried out at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling.
Officially, the causes of the deaths remain unsolved, but here a pat ending is tacked on. Had the show ended a minute earlier, history would have been preserved and audiences given something to think about. Instead, we are asked to swallow what Wildhorn and mythology have dictated, despite numerous other possibilities.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the music can’t decide whether it wants to be “The Merry Widow” or “Cats.” There’s not one memorable song in the entire show, which is not helped by the fact Rudolf is an unattractive wimp and Mary an opportunist. In their favor, Sarich (“Lestat”), Antoni and Filipcic do at least give committed performances.
Directed by West End and Broadway regular David Leveaux and designed by Mike Britton, the production, set in a white box, is insultingly cheap. Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe seems to have two gels: one red, one blue, so intense as to cause headaches. There’s a curved wrought-iron staircase that rises and falls, and nothing else. And Hendrik Maassen’s sound design is so deafening people were seen sticking fingers in their ears.