How do you reinvent a show that’s already been successfully reinvented several times? Spring Awakening is a 2006 musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, based off an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind. Spring Awakening follows a group of teens in 1800s Germany who grapple with sexuality, education, abortion and religion. Spring Awakening’s signature is reinvention, as with its original run, the subsequent Broadway revival by Deaf West, and now North by South finds a way to bring a new dawn to ‘Spring’.
Sexuality is central to the show and its characters, and this production takes a modern approach to gender that will resonate with many theatregoers today. What was shocking in 2006 is more conventional for audiences now, and North by South breathes new life into the punchy nature of the show with their interpretation of the script and score.
The show begins with the actors and musicians already in the space, as a roll call of the characters takes place while they dress in costume elements that act as signifiers. This is when Cal Robinson-Taylor’s vision becomes apparent – an egalitarian, gender blind production, created from the ground up.
The production is minimalistic, with only white chairs filling the stage, as well as a piano in the far right hand corner. Underneath them is a white floor with words written on it, seen only when the simple and effective lighting design allows. The cast and band utilise the confined stage well (particularly for ‘Totally Fucked’ which involves lots of thrashing around). What makes this production impactful is the actors’ dedication to their roles. The cast sheds real tears on stage, and as an audience member, it was impossible not to be moved.
Intimate moments between characters are beautifully staged, and it’s easy to forget there is a whole cast surrounding them for quieter moments like ‘The Word of your Body’; scenes that touch on suicide are handled deftly. Robinson-Taylor’s casting and direction makes for an exciting and thoughtful production of Spring Awakening, and each ‘gender blind’ casting decision is apt. Alex Langdon leads a cohesive band, that blends live music with pre-recorded moments well to fill out some songs, and give a rock edge to others. The familiar buzz of the electric guitar that is a hallmark of Spring Awakening’s folk/alternative score does not disappoint, and neither does the piano, which provides a gentleness to the show’s heavy themes.
Joseph Spanti and Majella Davis match each other’s depth and sincerity as Melchior and Wendla. Davis’ sweet voice lifts at all the right moments, and holds a lovely vibrato, while Spanti provides a passionate portrayal of Melchior (accompanied by great vocal chops). Together, they allow the audience to be drawn into a dramatic journey, and enjoy great chemistry together in ‘The Word of Your Body’.
‘Totally Fucked’, ‘Purple Summer’ and ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ showcase the entire cast at their best. ‘Mama’ involves the ‘boys’ in this production, giving it a more powerful sound. Francesca O’Donnell takes on the challenging role of Moritz, and balances his tightly wound emotion with a multitude of high belting very well. Tayla Muir sings beautifully as Martha, and Jaun Gomez joins her as a completely convincing Ilse, making ‘The Dark I know Well’ simply angelic. Samantha Hafey is a standout and gives a dangerously good performance as Hanschen, not shying away from any of the delightfully confronting moments in the show. Yash Fernando (Georg) belts the hell out of his solos, and is outstanding in ‘Touch Me’. Fernando was notable for his commitment on stage, as was Daniel Agar, who also served as a guitarist while playing Thea. The non-traditional casting choices made for compelling viewing, especially in the scene between Ernst, played by Laein-Antoni C. Garcia (whose skilful voice pours out of his characterisation with ease) and Hanschen.
It is well worth reviving a musical if you can discover new things within it, as North by South has with their exploration of the previously unexplored in Spring Awakening. Get down to Chapel off Chapel for an experience that will wake you up and make you think, complete with plenty of teen angst.
REVIEW BY CAITLIN PETEREIT