Spring Awakening (Millennial Productions)
Ron Hurley Theatre
January 20 – 29
To open an ensemble show with a solo number is a big ask of any performer. In the case of “Spring Awakening”, Nykita O’Keefe, as the innocent and confused Wendla, gives us a plaintively lamentful ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ reassurance that its daring narrative is in good musical hands with Millennial Productions. The sweetly-sung opener not only establishes the calibre of this production of the controversial musical, but conveys the yearning and frustration that underpins the emotions of its characters who are precariously positioned between childhood and adulthood, yet ignorant to what really awaits.
Bolding bringing an uncompromising text such as this to life also represents a challenge. The 1891 German play turned Tony Award winning rock musical puts teen sexuality, domestic and sexual violence, and suicide front and centre as it chronicles late 19th century German students on a journey of teenage self-discovery and coming-of-age anxiety in what is ultimately a powerful celebration of youth and rebellion.
A dominating tree may be bare, its leaves scattered across the stage, but clearly there is much life still within the story being told. In Millennial Productions’ hands, ensemble numbers like ‘Totally Fucked’ serve as catchy blasts of infectious blah blah blah blah blah blah blah echoing energy, which brings Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s stomping rock score to life with the high-energy movement of thrashing teen angst. Combined with Taylor Andrews’ decisive design aesthetic and dynamic direction, it means there is much to celebrate about this truly ensemble work.
Things start strongly as the primary characters of soon-to-be intertwined relationships are introduced. Scenes are swift in their transition from Wendla’s plead to an unhelpful mother to be told the facts of life, to a monotonous Latin drill where we meet our other two leads. The headstrong Melchoir (Damien Quick) leaps to defence of his anxious friend Moritz (AJ Betts), so traumatised by puberty that he can’t concentrate on anything. Lauren Bensted’s stylised choreography is particularly impressive in the resulting, ‘All That’s Known’, in which Melchior reflects on the shallow narrow-mindedness of school and society, as the ensemble of schoolboys move in unison upon and around their schoolroom formation seating.
Musical numbers all make good use of all opportunities of the space as they express the characters’ inner worlds. Melchior’s atmospheric number ‘The Bitch of Living’, about desire and anxiety (and masturbation), for example, can be conveyed in switching perspectives between multiple scenes, to keep audience members totally engaged.
“Spring Awakening” is an ensemble musical and the vocal prowess of this production’s performers blends beautifully in its ensemble numbers, such as the gorgeously soaring concluding ‘The Song of Purple Summer’ surmise that the seeds are planted for a new, open-minded, informed generation. Even smaller numbers showcase some crisp harmonies. O’Keefe’s voice is beautifully flexible and it works well with Quick as they both hit all the right emotional points in their characters’ reflection upon a shared moment of intimacy in an emotionally charged ‘The Guilty Ones’.
Earlier, as the soulful but essentially sad Moritz, struggling to satisfy his family’s expectations (and understand his erotic dreams), Betts is of strong voice too, particularly in ‘Touch Me’, during which the group share of their respective desire for physical intimacy. Betts is, in fact, the standout performer of the night, with charming energy, intense passion and empathetic characterisation. Also of note is Rae Rose who gives Isle a rage-filled sadness, when she sings opposite Liv Hutchins as Martha, of suffered abuse. And Emily Rohweder and Caleb Holman effectively jump in and out of all the adult roles within the musical’s dark storylines.
While lighting choices aren’t always clear, shadows and silhouettes adds layers to the overall aesthetic. Andrews’ costume design works well to effectively capture details of this punchy and emotional story of morality and sexuality. Though the stakes are higher in Act Two, which focusses on the consequences of the characters’ actions, the outcome is still an ultimately optimistic one as light is shone upon a no-longer bare tree in highlight that hope is still possible for mistakes not to be repeated.
“Spring Awakening” is a complex and daring landmark musical work of beauty, tragedy and hope, full of symbolism and contemplative universal themes around communication and change. Its sensitive material (the show comes with warning as to its inclusion of sexual situations, explicit language and scenes depicting violence and suicide), is handled well in this production, not scandalised or sensationalised, but shared in a way that conveys a clear respect for the original text. And its impact is elevated by the intimacy of the comfortable Ron Hurley Theatre, which allows for its moments of pathos and humour to fly by to its ultimate reclamation message that whoever you are, whatever you’re experiencing, it can be okay.
Photos c/o – Clear Image Photography