Review: Spring Awakening – A New Musical
I stepped from the wet foyer into Monash University’s Alexander Theatre on attendance night. Melbourne may be into the second month of spring but temperatures have remained stubbornly wintry and rains have been heavy and wild.
Frank Wedekind’s 19th century German play, upon which the broadway musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik is based, explores issues around teenage sexuality and adolescent pains — themes that cross borders and transcend time.
And this production jointly presented by Monash University Student Theatre and Monash University Academy of Performing Arts captures the battle between a developed body and a pre-developed mind in spectacular fashion. Its deft articulation of the satire on institutional farce and parental oppression also leaves one speculating about the real motivation behind the play’s century-old ban.
Wendla is a pubescent girl frustrated by her ignorance about human conception and her mother’s reluctance to educate her. Her childhood friend Melchior, who is more knowledgeable about the subject of sex, meanwhile, agrees to document his understanding of the matter for his best friend, Moritz, whose involuntary carnal obsessions have left him tormented and languishing in his classroom grades.
Director Yvonne Virsik’s sleek choreography sweeps the audience into the young characters’ personal space and raging minds. In a rhythmic rush, we burst into Georg’s erotic fantasies about his voluptuous piano teacher and peek into Hanschen’s private chambers of masturbation. However varying their levels of maturity, as the rendition of “Touch Me” duly informs, the pre-adults are nothing if not united in their yearnings for physical affection.
Indeed, it is the musical direction of Tom Pitts that firmly snatches one from one’s seat into the characters’ most visceral whorls. With exquisite sensitivity, his eight-piece band carries Martha’s “The Dark I Know Well” — sung with heartfelt veracity by the talented Stephanie Speirs — to become one of the production’s most riveting soliloquy in song.
The whole ensemble of 20 fine actors responds to this demanding work with superlative performances. Jem Nicholas’ Wendla lets us see how her naive curiosity begs for the affliction of bodily pain in the same way that it leads her to succumb to Melchior’s sexual moves. Her desperate cries for her mother not to abandon her to the abortionist send chills that reverberate across the misty air. Still, it is Joel Horwood’s Melchior who epitomises the mismatch in development between body and mind. Not able to fully grasp the consequences of his own actions, he demonstrates how easy it is to be carried away in a triumph of body over mind.
With deceptive ease, several actors shift seamlessly back and forth between two or more challenging roles. Jacob Thomas rumbles imperiously as the schoolmaster who unfairly fails Moritz to uphold the institution’s lofty standards and as Moritz’s over-bearing father whose concern for his own social status drives his son to commit suicide. Similar feats in multiple roles have also been carried out with energy and verve by Haley Toth, Jack Angwin and Lauren O’Dwyer.
While Wedekind may have been audacious in his open exploration of homosexuality, he was arguably derisory in his depiction of gays. Tom Halls delivers handsomely in his portrayal of the sly and hedonistic Hanschen — the self-professed “pussy cat” who “skims off the milk”.
There are also excellent accomplishments by James Cerche as Moritz and Lucy Hotchin as Ilsa; they both represent the casualties in a society suffering from amnesia of growing pains.
Jason Lehane’s innovative set allows for the clever juxtaposition of scenes that tells the sprawling narrative in a crisp and economical manner while Brendan Jellie’s lighting design is the subtle focus muscle that takes you on that breathtaking ride.
At the end of what was a stunning evening, I stepped out of Alexander Theatre back into the campus foyer. The winds had dropped and the rains were no more. And like “The Song of Purple Summer”, I knew tomorrow shall bring new hope and new life with the promises of Spring Awakening — A New Musical.