Spring Awakening

ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, April 29

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The cast of Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

When you cast convincingly young performers in a musical about teenagers, the trade-off is the relative inexperience of the cast – one of the reasons Squabbalogic’s recent production of The Original Grease struggled to really take off.

But under the guiding hand of director Mitchell Butel, the raw, youthful energy that his young cast brings to this ATYP production of the musical Spring Awakening outweighs any lack of experience, making for an altogether more satisfying production than the one staged by Sydney Theatre Company in 2010.

With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, Spring Awakening is based on the controversial 1891 play of the same name by German playwright Frank Wedekind. After premiering off-Broadway in 2006, it transferred to Broadway where it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

The musical retains the 19th century setting but uses a contemporary indie rock score that moves from wistful, melodic ballads to punky anthems like The Bitch of Living and Totally F**ked. Set in a repressive world where parents, teachers and other authority figures consider any talk of sex disgusting, the curious, hormonal, angst-ridden teenagers are wilfully kept in ignorance of the facts of life – with tragic results. In such a society, parents are so concerned with what others think that they are prepared to sacrifice their children’s welfare for the sake of appearances.

Spring Awakening goes to dark places including sexual and domestic abuse, abortion, self-harm and suicide.

Though things have certainly progressed since Wedekind’s day, the recent debate surrounding the “Safe Schools” initiative to broaden sexual education shows how much conservatism still persists today. At the very top of the show, Butel brings the cast onto stage accessing social media mobile phones as a nod in this direction, but from there the production sticks to the period.

The musical focusses primarily on three teenagers: the intelligent, confident, rebellious Melchior (James Raggatt), the naïve, inquisitive Wendla (Jessica Rookeward), and the troubled misfit Moritz (Josh McElroy) who is tortured by wet dreams and a fear of failure at school, particularly given his cold, bullying father. Around them, cameo stories of other school friends amplify the world of the play.

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Jessica Rookeward as Wendla and James Raggatt as Melchior. Photo: Tracey Schramm

This is only the second musical Butel has directed, following his award-winning production of Violet for the Hayes Theatre Co and Blue Saint Productions last year, and once again he proves to have a sure and sensitive touch, drawing heartfelt, affecting performances from his young cast. The singing is a bit uneven but despite this the production is very powerful. It rocks when it needs to and also lands the quieter, emotional moments.

Staged on a simple set designed by Simon Greer, with a grid floor, a few square stools, and the band on a platform at the back, Butel uses the space brilliantly, keeping the focus sharp and true in scenes featuring just a few characters. For the ensemble numbers, he has the cast surge onto stage and perform with a furious energy that explodes in the intimate space.

The way the production moves between the two is handled with a keen sense of rhythm, supported by Amy Campbell’s inventive, punchy choreography. Greer’s costuming is excellent, as is the moody lighting by Damien Cooper and Ross Graham and Lucy Bermingham’s tight musical direction.

Raggatt’s Melchior (the charismatic boy all the girls fancy and to whom Moritz turns) is less an obviously dashing figure and more a smart, mature character who initially appears far more able to survive than his classmates. It’s a strong performance, and Raggatt (a recent NIDA graduate) plumbs the tragedy of Melchior’s downfall and heartbreak.

As Wendla, Rookeward convincingly portrays a girl on the cusp of womanhood, aware of her changing body but still genuinely naïve, and she sings with a lovely, clear voice.

McElroy gives a compelling, intuitive performance as Moritz, which seems to pour untrammelled straight from his gut and heart; one that keeps you transfixed whenever he is on stage. Alex Malone’s Ilse combines youthfulness with a quiet maturity beyond her years, while Patrick Diggins is unsettlingly funny as the cocky, gay Hanschen, played here like a forerunner to the Hitler Youth. Richard Sydenham and Thomasin Litchfield take on all the adult figures, most of them grim.

All in all, though there are times when you are aware that this is youth theatre, Butel has worked wonders with his young cast, helming a production that really rocks and at the same time moves you with the authenticity of its raw emotion.

Spring Awakening plays at the ATYP Studio, The Wharf until May 14. Evenings are sold out but there are tickets available for mid-week matinees. Bookings: http://www.atyp.com.au

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