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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Violet

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide and the cast of Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Hayes Theatre Co, December 2

Violet is a lovely little musical with a gentle charm that gets under the skin. Before you know it, you’ve been knocked for six.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (who won Best Musical and Best Original Score for Fun Home at this year’s Tony Awards) and writer Brian Crawley, it is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim.

The show premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and had a short season on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster as Violet. But it couldn’t have been given a more loving production than it gets here, produced by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes, and directed by Mitchell Butel.

Set in 1964, Violet tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Dodemaide) who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

En route, she meets two soldiers – the cocky Monty (Steve Danielsen) and the kindly Flick (Barry Conrad) who as an African American understands what it’s like to be a misfit. The two buddies take her under their wing and fall for her.

Tesori’s music includes gospel, country, blues, soul, folk as well as ballads and soaring anthems in a more traditional musical theatre style. It’s a gorgeous score, with the songs emerging organically from the story and the characters.

Butel makes a very impressive directorial debut. For starters, his casting is excellent and he draws clearly delineated, truthful performances from the actors. He keeps the action moving fluidly at a perfect pace, and he knows exactly how to put the focus where it needs to be.

Simon Greer’s non-naturalistic set is a clever, evocative space, which Butel uses extremely well, with great support from the rest of the creative team (lighting by Ross Graham, costumes by Lucetta Stapleton and choreography by Amy Campbell).

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

With her expressive face and voice, Dodemaide gives a radiant performance as Violet, capturing her prickly exterior and inner vulnerability. She manages to make the character’s deluded naivety believable and has a lovely, shy smile that lights up the stage.

Luisa Scrofani and Damien Bermingham are moving in flashback scenes between the young Violet and her father. Danielsen and Conrad give warm, appealing, believable performances as Monty and Flick, Dash Kruck nails the charlatan preacher, while Genevieve Lemon is a scene-stealer as an old Lady on the bus and a Memphis lady of the night.

The rest of the ensemble – Katie Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez and Elenoa Rokobaro – all play their part beautifully and between them unleash some powerhouse vocals, while Musical Director Lucy Bermingham leads a tight six-piece band.

The lyrics in the opening number are a little hard to hear with everyone singing so loudly, but after that the sound (sound design by Jeremy Silver) is as good as I’ve heard it at the Hayes.

Violet is a simple, optimistic piece about self-acceptance and forgiveness. The ending won’t surprise but it touches the heart without being sentimental or corny.

Violet is at the Hayes until December 20. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 29