Tag: Steven Sater

Review: Spring Awakening

A re-envisioned rendition

By Owen James

Spring Awakening is a powerful, transporting show. Steven Sater’s book is incomparable, packed with thoughtful, confronting scenes that are affecting no matter the interpretation. Adapted into a musical from the once-banned 1891 Germanic playtext written by Franz Wedekind, the material highlights the importance of sexual education through the lives of repressed, struggling teenagers in a stringent and stilted time that unfortunately is not too distant from today. After its initial, very popular 2006 Broadway production, it also had a revival by Deaf West Theatre transfer to Broadway in 2015, that saw the show reinvented with the added thematic catalyst of deaf education – demonstrating how ripe and malleable Spring Awakening is for reinvention. North By South Theatre are presenting the first “gender fluid” production of this cult classic, encouraging us to examine the characters for their motives and emotions with actors who are “not playing a gender”, but “playing a person”.

The gender of the characters has not been altered, nor have the characters been stripped of gender entirely. The costuming is (confusingly) distinctly gendered, and many moments of the text inherently rely on gender archetypes. It’s a unique concept that certainly feels pertinent to the show, but one that for me did not elevate the material to any new heights, nor uncover a fresh interpretation on the text. Director Cal Robinson-Taylor has staged this rendition very well in the cosy ‘Loft’ (fitting name) at Chapel Off Chapel, where movement/choreography never feels squashed or crowded, despite the thirteen-strong cast.

Musical Director Alex Langdon has ensured the musical performances from both cast and band are top-notch at every turn. Harmonies are rich and complete, and ensemble numbers pack considerable punch. Sound Design from Ryan Mangold is professional and refined; the band are mixed with precision to craft a perfect blend between instruments. I’ve seen the show many times, but this is the clearest rendition of the beautiful string arrangements I’ve heard. Unfortunately, the performers are without amplification, so many lyrics and parts of dialogue spoken over music are simply lost.

Joseph Spanti and Majella Davis as Melchior and Wendla are a well-matched duo, bravely delving into their characters’ intimate connection with interchanging nuance and fire. Spanti finds moving emotional heights in “Totally Fucked” and the penultimate graveyard scene, and Davis’ “Whispering” is packed with sweet innocence and soft vocals.

Francesca O’Donnell executes the demands of stress-ridden teen Moritz adeptly, tackling songs intended for a male voice with vigour that thankfully suit her very well. Juan Gomez performs a very compelling portrayal of Ilse, with the character’s appearance in early act two arguably the highlight of the show. There are many textured, detailed moments from members of the ensemble, and “Touch Me” gives ample chills (particularly the belted solo from Yash Fernando).

Whilst there are plentiful caveats in blurring the gender lines, I applaud North-By-South theatre for attempting to view Spring Awakening through a unique lens, and addressing issues deservedly part of the current public headspace. I hope they continue to tackle future productions with as determined and bold an approach.


Photography courtesy of Chapel Off Chapel


Ambitious take on audacious musical

By Bradley Storer

Spring Awakening, the rock musical which first revolutionized the modern conception of musical theatre over ten years ago on Broadway, is a strange beast – the text derived from Frank Wedekind’s controversial late-ninteenth-century play, combined with contemporary rock/pop/folk songs composed by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater that are specifically designed to stand apart from and explore the action of the plot rather than to advance it as in traditional music theatre. Resolving this division between the music and text requires strong direction and a conceptual framework that can bridge these two elements.

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Director Robbie Carmellotti has made big and bold offers with this production, and I thoroughly respect and applaud his efforts in exploring new pathways to interpret a modern classic. However, elements of this production did not fully succeed: the decision to have characters play their own instruments at different points (which all but vanished by the second act) didn’t add anything in particular to the meaning or understanding of the show – the central conceit of nineteenth-century German school children morphing into teen rock stars is already so strong on its own that it doesn’t need this addition. The appearance of handheld microphones as part of this overall metaphor, while an inherent part of this show, becomes overused in this production and feels forced into several unnecessary moments. The decision to have the cast speak their dialogue in German accents and to sing in American accents, which again I appreciate as an attempt to underline the distance between the characters and their inner ‘rock stars’, is unfortunately undermined by a lack of consistent accents across the entire cast. And finally, the re-orchestration of Sheik’s music at certain points deadened the impact of this vital and pulse-raising score, the loss of electric guitar in ‘The Bitch of Living’ turning the number into a country-fied hoedown that lacks the energy and guts of the original.

Brent Trotter is wonderful as Moritz, the anxiety-riddled schoolboy who befalls a terrible fate, managing the character’s difficult journey with great emotion and a gorgeous contemporary voice. As Wendla, Jessie-Lou Yates works hard and tirelessly throughout, but feels slightly miscast in reading as too old to be a young girl undergoing puberty. Ashley Roussety as Melchoir, the closest the show has to a central character, has the opposite problem – he looks perfectly cast as the charismatic and fiercely intelligent protagonist and delivers a credible performance in the first act, and is particularly impressive in Zoee Marsh’s choreography for ‘The Mirror-Blue Night’. However, in the second act he begins to feel a little lost in the role as the story races to climax, losing the emotional impact of the tragic but hopeful conclusion.

The supporting cast, in contrast, are uniformly excellent. Henry Brett steals the entire show as the effete Hanschen, drawing raucous laughter in his two big scenes. Luisa Scrofani impressively shreds the bass guitar as she emotionally tears into the bleakness of ‘The Dark I Know Well’. Grace Browne shines as Thea, and Alice Batt plays both violin and the role of Anna beautifully. Olivia Solomons manages to effectively differentiate every one of her multitude of female adult characters, but sadly Barry Mitchell as her opposite is less successful as parts blur together with similar vocal tone and physicality. The entire ensemble offer up heart-touching loveliness in the complex choreography and choral harmonies of ‘Touch Me’, one of the production’s stronger moments, and showcasing some stunning riffing from Jordan Mahar as Georg.

While this production may have its problems, StageArt should be commended for their commitment to offering contemporary and challenging musicals, and the entire creative team and cast congratulated for attempting a new approach to this much-loved and ground-breaking piece.

Dates: 19 May -10 June

Venue: Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran.

Times: Wed – Sun 7:30pm, Matinee Sat & Sun 1.30pm, Sun 21st May 4pm

Prices: $49 – $79

Bookings: chapeloffchapel.com.au, (03) 8290 7000, at the venue box office.