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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The Upcoming Year in Musicals

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29th December 2009.

Musical theatre fans have plenty to look forward to next year. With a few old favourites returning plus the Australian premiere of two exciting new productions, there is something for everyone, limited only by your budget.

For those who like to travel, there are many incentives to wander down south to Melbourne in 2010. Jersey Boys, the supremely entertaining jukebox musical based on the life and careers of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, continues to wow audiences at the Princess Theatre and most likely will not make the transfer to Sydney until 2011.

Mary Poppins, presented by musical theatre juggernaut, Cameron Mackintosh, and little known film production company, Disney, will make its Australian premiere in July at Her Majesty’s Theatre. With songs drawn from the 1964 Disney film, the storyline will follow the darker source material of P.L. Travers book. Starring Debra Byrne, Marina Prior, Philip Quast , Judi Connelli and So You Think You Can Dance judge Matt Lee as Bert (let’s hope his Cockney accent is better than Dick Van Dyke’s), the iconic titular role is yet to be cast. Trivia buffs will be interested to know that P.L. Travers, an Australian, hated the Disney film and stipulated in her will that only English born writers were to be involved in the creative process of adapting the movie for the stage.

Also making its Australian premiere in Melbourne will be The Drowsy Chaperone, winner of 5 Tony Awards in 2006, including Best Original Score and Best Book. Starring Geoffrey Rush and Rhonda Burchmore, it will have a limited engagement from January.

Sydney will also have its fair share of touring and long stay musicals next year. Wicked will continue its open ended run at the Capitol Theatre and the national tour of Mamma Mia will finish up at the Lyric Theatre in February.

Sydney Theatre Company will produce the Australian Premiere of Spring Awakening in February. With music by 90’s pop star Duncan Sheik, the alternative rock musical is set in late-nineteenth century Germany and focuses on a group of teenagers coming to grips, so to speak, with their sexuality. Winning 8 Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, this controversial production is certainly not family friendly. Glee fans will be interested to know that Lea Michele (who plays Rachel Berry) starred in the original Broadway production.

Perennial musical favourites Cats and West Side Story will tour Australia next year. The Sydney season of Cats will open in May. This international touring production will certainly be dwarfed inside the cavernous Lyric Theatre but is sure to delight audiences of all ages. Following numerous Australian runs, 18 years on Broadway, 21 years in the West End and a local production by Orange Theatre Co in 2007, Cats definitely has nine lives.

West Side Story hits the Lyric Theatre at Star City in July (let’s hope it doesn’t leave its kids in the car). This seminal American musical, featuring timeless music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, will be choreographed by Joey McKneeley, who was personally chosen by original choreographer Jerome Robbins to recreate his steps. Auditions are now underway for Australian performers to join the cast.

Locally, audiences will also have a feast of shows to enjoy with Dusty The Original Pop Diva, Rent and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee all scheduled to be performed at the Orange Civic Theatre as part of the 2010 Subscription Season.

 As a lover of musicals, and with a trip to the West End also planned, 2010 is going to be a busy, and expensive, year for me.

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 01:28  Leave a Comment  
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