Rock & Angst [by James Wenley]
“Forget every other Musical you’ve ever seen” says the pre-show announcement voice as the lights dim for Spring Awakening. It’s a statement that is more about marketing hype than the show’s ability to offer something new to the form. Sure, its themes of suicide, masturbation, and sexual abuse are risqué, but nothing that are not presented in a confrontational enough way to be piercingly challenging to an audience. It’s still conventional Musical Theatre to a fault. Spring Awakening the Musical is based on German Frank Wedekind’s 1890 play, which did prove too much and was banned in its time, and was not performed until 16 years later. As a Rock Musical, Spring Awakening is very much the inheritor of Hair and later Rent, which used that music genre to explore the angst and rebellion of the younger generations. Except here the angst is transplanted to 1890s proto-teenagers with a distinct indie-rock vibe. The 2006 Broadway Musical, hardly Fringe, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, ran for just over two years, and was career making for Glee stars Lea Michelle, Jonathan Groff and Jenna Ushkowitz. Auckland Music Theatre finally debuts the New Zealand Premiere for Auckland Fringe in a production that is suitably rough – if not quite ready.
Largely faithful to Wedekind’s original, if watered down, Steven Sater’s and Duncan Shieks’s Musical casts a band of young women and men against the oppressive social structures of the adult world. The young experience new and strange thoughts, but a vacuum of knowledge leads to ‘unhealthy’ responses and the destruction of some of them. Wendla’s (Heather Wilcock) mother refuses to tell her how babies are made. Moritz (Graham Candy) suffers “mortifying visions” in his dreams and is failing in school. Ernst (Clayton Curnow) finds himself inexplicitly drawn to his fellow school-mate Hanschen (Ciarin Smith). A succession of adult characters played by Ian Fenwick and Minouk Van Der Velde ruthlessly tries to keep the young’s impulses in check. Only Melchior (Chris Bryan) is armed with the knowledge of the social taboos.
The Music in the show is very cleverly counterpoints the heavily repressed state of the youths and acts as a vocal and physical release and vehicle of self-expression for the characters. There’s a satisfying mix of ballads – such as Wendla’s troubling ‘Mama who Bore Me’ at the top of the show – and high energy rock like ‘The Bitch of Living’ and ‘Totally Fucked’ which burst with rage. Sater’s lyrics are well observed: the repeated “O, I’m gonna be wounded / O, I’m gonna be your wound / O, I’m gonna bruise you / O, you’re gonna be my bruise” in ‘The Word of your body’ are simple but powerfully speak to the mutual destruction that love can bring. The cast perform their choreography (Teesh Szabo and Lexi Clare) with gusto, with lots of foot stamping and general angst, kicking the characters’ frustrations wide open. Musical Director Chris Moore leads the orchestra, which as well as the piano, guitars and drums include a well-balanced combination of violin, viola, cello and bass.
This cast are highly-gifted vocally and maneuver well through the different tones required from the songs. Bryan’s voice has excellent clarity and strength, and Wilcock achieves a heart-wrenching quality. Unfortunately the vocals were not matched by the acting: often the cast were not grounded or connecting with the characters or each other, and dialogue scenes were strangely passionless and did not reflect the powerful desires brimming under the surface that propel the characters: subtlety and subtext were lost. Richard Neame’s direction favoured a declamatory musical theatre style of acting that might work on a Broadway stage but not in the more intimate confines of the Westpoint shed with audience up close on three sides.
A towering tree looms over the characters and the audience at the back of the theatre, a conceptually strong expression of the tree-of-knowledge type. Otherwise the stage is barren of further features other than the tree’s roots painted on the floor. Andrew Potvin’s play of haze, dim light, and colour therefore creates the atmosphere, but his extravagant choices are at times ill-conceived: strips of brightly coloured LED lights on the back-wall serve no apparent purpose, and his design at times threatens to push the show into a lighting spectacle that again doesn’t serve the intimacy of the venue or needs of the style.
Neame employs a pseudo-Brechtian device of having the cast watch the action onstage on planted chairs within the audience, which detracted rather than added to the show. It failed to satisfactorily implicate the audience in our witnessing of the events. More problematic was the passivity of the watching cast: rather than feeding in energy to the stage and remaining active and involved, they switched off: a deadly move.
The social pressures and ignorance presented in the show seem quaint today, especially the lack of sexual education, but through this lens there is the possibility to consider the constructs that are imposed on our general society today. One character’s complaint of the “creeping sensuality of these liberal-minded times” echoes contemporary social commentary. Some things haven’t changed, and we too repress our baser desires for the good of polite society and behavior.
Spring Awakening does that odd Musical convention of the happy closing number where Melchior looks forward to the “wonder of Purple Summer” and the characters lost along the way are restored. We end upbeat, but how hopeful will Melchior’s life be as he transitions to the grey restrictions of adulthood? The number is greeted with a standing ovation from a supportive and appreciative crowd, but I am not moved to stand. For me, Spring Awakening did not hit and fails to strike a consistent style and statement.
Spring Awakening is presented by Auckland Music Theatre and plays as part of Auckland Fringe at West Point until 9 March. Details see Auckland Fringe.