1 – 2 November 2013
Reviewed by Meredith Walker
Spring Awakening is no ordinary musical; it is difficult, emotional and uncompromising. Rape, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality and suicide are odd concepts for what is generally a gentle musical, but this juxtaposition is what makes the teen tragicomedy such a unique theatre experience and a bold choice for Ipswich’s Risk Productions’ second show.
Since winning the 2007 Tony for best musical (one of its eight Tony accolades), Spring Awakening has only expanded its cult following, which is understandable in consideration of its catchy, albeit explicit, songs. And the music is certainly a highlight of this production. Orchestrated for a small rock band, supported by soulful strings, it conveys the yearning and frustration that underpin the show’s emotion. Indeed, from the opening, beautiful Mama Who Bore Me to the closing final ensemble finale, The Song of Purple Summer, it is often gorgeous in its soaring melodies and evocative rhythms. Though in many instances, the musical performances on stage miss the thematic mark, neither making your heart sink or soar, collective chorus numbers are harmonious and the male ensemble pieces are memorably entertaining, particularly Bitch of Living, which is brought to life with with high-energy movement, from rhythmic stomping to jumping on chairs.
Staging is simple and sparse, opening as some withered trees behind a lone wooden chair. This befits the haunting, intimate musical numbers, however, establishes expectation that what will be occurring on stage will be a highlight, without need for elaborate ornamentation. Unfortunately, this is an expectation left largely unrealised. The central trio of characters do not really emerge as fully rounded characters, which detracts from empathic audience engagement of their ultimate dooms. And having two actors play all the adult roles makes for a simplistic approach to the generational conflict at the core of a story of teens frustrated by their adolescent yearnings in a society where they are offered little, if any, information about sexuality.
Anna Elshaw is convincing in her portrayal of Wendla’s precarious position between girlhood and womanhood. All blonde hair and innocent eyes, she looks like something straight from the Little House on the Prairie as she pleads with her mother for the facts of life, only to be denied in a manner that leaves her vulnerable to her natural urges and ignorance. And from his first solo, All That’s Know, Patrick Daley gives a strong performance as tragic hero Melchoir. Jack Obrien’s portrayal of the befuddled Moritz, a young man struggling to satisfy family expectations and to understand his erotic dreams, is engaging in its almost painful insecurity. He captures the character’s physical and mental discomfort in both performance and song; when he moves out of nineteenth century German life and into pseudo-punk songs, his distorted facial expressions and jerky body movements channel shades of Sid Vicious. What a shame his vocals were so often inaudible.
Unfortunately, this was just one of a range of distracting technical difficulties. Sober white lighting, missed lighting cues and continuity costuming and prop issues, were all jarring to the audience and distracting from the show’s strengths.
Spring Awakening is controversial and daring, but an appealingly unique show, as unlike other musicals, the songs do not advance the plot, but, rather, provide an inner monologue, existing in the teenagers’ heads. To present it in La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre, Australia’s only purpose built in-the-round theatre is a lofty ambition. For this ambition to be realised, however, all audience sections need to be equally engaged and the space needs to be filled with vocals. While it is disorienting to find nineteenth century German schoolboys suddenly yanking microphones from inside their costumes to perform as if in a rock concert, it is even more perplexing to realise that microphones are merely props, given how the audience struggles to hear so much of the show’s vocal delivery.
Spring Awakening is a sterling example of the risk-taking needed to keep theatre invigorated. Although its holistic potential may not have been realised in this instance, Risk Productions should be commended for its aspiration, as without risk, there can only be limited audience reward.