Review: Spring Awakening

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 9th February 2010.

Spring Awakening is the latest Broadway musical to make its way to our shores. With its Australian premiere this week, this new production has controversial origins which stretch way back to the 1890’s. I was lucky enough to catch a preview performance this past weekend.

Spring Awakening was German Frank Wedekind’s first ever play. Its storyline focuses on German teenagers in the late 19th century exploring their newfound sexuality and adolescence. Completed in 1891but not performed until 1906 in Berlin, his production attracted much criticism and was eventually banned from performance and publication for about 21 years due to its portrayal of abortion, suicide, sex and masturbation.

In 2001, the play was adapted into a musical by wordsmith Steven Sater and 90’s popster Duncan Sheik. Following numerous rewrites and workshops, the show finally premiered in 2006 on Broadway. Starring Glee actress Lea Michele, who originated the lead female role of Wendla from the very first workshops at the age of 14, the musical went on to run for 888 performances and won 8 Tony awards including best musical, book, director and score.

Sydney Theatre Company’s production is the first English language version to not be a replica of the original. Featuring a cast of 15 young performers aged between 17 and 24, all attended open auditions and beat out 1200 other hopefuls for their roles. The experience of the young cast ranges from seasoned actors to those still in training (two of the cast have been temporarily released from their studies at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) to those making their stage debuts (one performer auditioned in her school uniform).

Very much an ensemble piece, Spring Awakening’s Australian cast are all exceptionally strong singers and actors individually, but as a collective they bring a youthful energy and zest to the stage that sweeps all of the audience along in its wake. In particular, the show’s finale, The Song of Purple Summer, raises the hairs on the back of your neck with the whole cast in powerful vocal form.

The set is quite remarkable. A simple two story wooden structure is the centrepiece of the stage. Pivoting from mid-stage, the versatile bridge-like set is swept around by the cast to represent everything from a wharf to a cemetery. Ladders allow the cast to move around the set. The stage is walled in with black material, with doorways in the side and back walls as entrances. The front third of the stage is at a steep incline meaning that the cast are often dancing precariously at an angle which looks like it may send them into the audience at any time.

The lighting effects are almost deserving of a starring credit of their own. Hundreds of incandescent light globes hang individually from the roof, giving the show at times an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere. The cast often utilise handheld spotlights to illuminate their faces during some of the more dramatic moments.

Director Geordie Brookman has crafted a standout piece of musical theatre. Eliciting powerful performances from actors just starting out in their careers, I felt privileged to witness the stars of tomorrow in such a grounded but vibrant new production. My only gripe is the choice to use Australian accents. Amongst German names and a decidedly European atmosphere, the twang of the performer’s accents grated with me.

The thematic focus of Spring Awakening means that the swearing and brief nudity may turn off some. It is certainly not for pre-teens, or those who like their musicals to be all singing and dancing colour explosions.

As the hit musical Rent became the voice of youth in the 90’s extolling the virtues of living your life in the present, I predict Spring Awakening will also resonate with young audiences. However, unlike Rent, which has aged somewhat as attitudes towards AIDS change, the turmoil of adolescent sexuality is a universal and eternal theme which has ensured that Spring Awakening has remained relevant since 1891.

Spring Awakening opens tonight at the Sydney Theatre, runs until 7th March and is highly recommended.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 06:57  Leave a Comment  
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