|Photo by Tracey Schramm
This is the third production of SPRING AWAKENING - The Musical, that I have seen. I saw the original Broadway production at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 2008, and the, relatively, mis-conceived production by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2010. This production of the musical based, 'roughly', on the Frank Wedekind play (1891), Directed by Mitchell Butel, is the most satisfying of the three experiences. This is a play about teenagers, navigating the sexual 'explosions' of their bodies, equipped with only the basic instincts around it, living in a society that is 'shy' of providing the proper education for the negotiating of that most integral part of their human journey. The success of this production has to do, mostly, for me, with the sense that these actor/singers are palpably believable, in age appearance, to be the characters they are playing, and in the intimate space of the ATYP Studio space, reveal, close-at-hand, authentic capabilities with their musical skills: sometimes raw and enthusiastic, but, always, fully committed.
The relevance of the thematics of the Musical and its exposure of a society that permits ignorance around sex and then, the consequent social scandal and shaming, unwanted children and even suicide, is as powerful as the original was - the play was banned from performance, in Germany until 1906, 1917 in the USA and 1963 in England. I first knew the Wedekind play from enthusiastic but mostly, prurient student productions at Universities, in Sydney, as I was growing up. In the program notes, Mr Butel says:
... It only took the recent debate over the Safe Schools Coalition education program, and its eventual curtailment and planned abolition, to demonstrate that though some are quite fine with teenagers being able to get lost in a never-ending exchange of suggestive selfies or to download pornography with an easy click on their multiple devices, the notion of actually offering teenagers information about sexuality and choice or access to resources for their self-development is seen by some as a no-no.The best part of this adaptation by Steven Sater is that the central interest is not about the yearning for sex but for knowledge.
The music is for some and not for others. It is formulated by Duncan Sheik from what is known as 'alternative rock' - and in the context of contemporary sound and the original play-time source, is a folk infused rock score. The attraction of it, especially for the younger generation, I have observed, is in the iconoclastic themes/statements of the Lyrics of the songs, for instance, "The Bitch of Living", "Totally Fucked", that are accompanied by raunchy in-yer-face musical enthusiasms. Too, there are some touching meditations on psychological turmoil, especially, "Don't Do Sadness".
The staging of this Musical, viewed from three sides by the audience, is wonderfully prepared, by Mr Butel, and is suggestive in stage-shape of the history of the evolution of this show in its original workshop permutations, and does work brilliantly to engage the audience with the visceral energies of the cast. Set Design, by Simon Greer, is simple, with the band set centrally, on a raised platform, at the back of the stage to permit the free flow of the action of the story, on the fore-stage, accommodating the well drilled choreography of Amy Campbell. The Lighting Design is effective from two of the 'power-house' Designers in Sydney at the moment: Damien Cooper and Ross Graham. Lucy Bermingham, with her band of eight players and assisted Sound Design (David Bergman), are a sensitive and commanding energy to the piece.
This is a 'big' sing for this young company. James Raggart, as Melchior, mostly, succeeds at the demands of the work and certainly looks the part, though his voice seemed to be sounding ragged and tired by the time we got to the solo and duet/reprise of "Don't Do Sadness" in the early part of Act Two. Josh McElroy, as Moritz, sustained the play/musical demands for his character more successfully and has a charisma that demands that you pay attention, despite, sometimes loose precision in his storytelling skills. Patrick Diggins, as Hanschen, and Joe Howe, as Ernst, were always intriguing figures on the stage. Alex Malone, as Ilse, was the most impressive of the leading women in the cast with a gutsy sense of the 'alternative' education of her character, and a very secure centre to her singing voice - Ilse, a pleasing force of 'good' nature. Jessica Rookeward, as Wendla, was mostly comfortable with her 'big sing' but less appealing in the 'acting' of the book and in the storytelling. In fact the weakness, that prevented this production from completely taking off, for me, was the lack of secure reality in the acting demands, of most of the company, which tended to skirt into shallow musical theatre technique rather than the capture of 'truth' that such proximity of the audience, in the theatre seating, had a need to demand.
The sheer energy and obvious enjoyment of the process of the production, and probably, the youthful identification of the cast with the material/content of the Musical is what seduces one to having a very good time in the theatre. I understand the production was solidly booked before even the production opened, but it is worth catching, if the rock musical is your bag. And certainly, its message is as important for this contemporary age as it was in its original incarnation in 1891! - sad to say.