Upon entering into Metroarts’ Sue Benner Theatre for Underground Broadway’s production of Spring Awakening, it was very clear from the outset that the director has a clear vision for the show. With a bare stage housing only a grand, imposing tree whose branches were intermingled with Edison bulbs, the addition of fog and the playing of angst-fuelled music gave me one of the best pre-show experiences I’ve seen.
Spring Awakening, a show that hardcore musical theatre fans would know instantly (but the general public probably not so much) is not your usual subject matter for a musical. Based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, the eight-time Tony award-winning musical adaptation has music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater and tells the tale of the story of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of teenage sexuality in 19th Century Germany.
Director Tim Hill, no stranger to the Brisbane musical theatre scene, has successfully managed to create an intriguing and immersive world in which his actors could explore Spring Awakening’s heart-wrenching subject matter without the confines of overbearing set or props. The directorial choice to keep all of the cast members onstage for the majority of the musical was effective and really gave the production a cohesive feel – one of unity & support – which were both key ideas found in the show. The constant breaking of the fourth wall with handheld microphones – creating a rock concert of sorts – was a nod to the original Broadway blocking, but was extremely effective in each of the cast members’ musical soliloquies. These microphones however did feel a little too much like a prop as they did not change the sound or timbre of the vocals whilst the cast were using them – it would have been great to hear some over-the-top stadium reverb to justify the juxtaposition of rock concert within a very strict school setting. This being said, Hill’s direction was clean and clear where pace was successfully maintained, keeping up the show’s momentum even during some of the books drier scenes.
This clean and clear concept extended through to Deanna Castellana’s choreography, which was sharp, concise and imaginative. Her choreography during ‘The Bitch of Living’ was particularly memorable for both its playful simplicity (beginning with just unison hand gestures), and extreme effectiveness in conveying the overbearing oppression faced by the boys at the hands of their teachers. Although Spring Awakening is not a particularly dance-heavy show, there was a sense of unity in everyone’s movements, which created a sense of cohesion.
Dominic Woodhead’s musical direction was strong from the outset and really added to the storytelling. The powerful a capella section at the end of “The Song of Purple Summer” was a clear highlight and a testament to both cast and musical director. The five-piece band was tight and extremely well balanced in the mix and the live cello played by Renee Edson was a stand out for her beautiful tone adding to the melancholy of several harrowing moments. The augmentation of live violin and piano played by actors Ruby Clark and Sammy Sand from the stage was a welcome addition and although more instrument-playing actors may have added to the drama of no-one leaving the stage, nothing was lost by not having more.
The technical elements of this production were simply sublime. Ben Murray’s sound design was some of the best sound I’ve heard in Brisbane in both professional and community circuits. No spoilers here, but during some of the final atmospheric scenes you could feel the haunting bass through your entire body effectively transporting you to the ominous graveyard right near the main characters. Occasionally the band was a little loud compared to the vocals, but this was quickly corrected by sound operators Brady Watkins and Lauren Moore and never detracted from the experience.
For me, the hero of the show was Wes Bluff’s stunning lighting design. Considering the limitations of the Sue Benner Theatre in terms of space and limited ability to hang lighting, Bluff managed to create a fantastical world that morphed morbid reality with the more rock concert-esque surreality. Nothing was ever overdone and the entire lighting design had an air of professionalism to it – subtly picking out ensemble members surrounding the outer wall of the stage with ease. The use of the Edison bulbs as an additional tree canopy was both exquisite and purposive with some of the bulbs being low enough for cast members to interact with as the musical progressed. The use of these bulbs also gave a more sinister feel to some of the scenes which especially considering the dark nature of this show was clever and imaginative.
The main scenic element of the show was a large oak tree that rose above the stage and over the first few rows of the audience creating a stunning sense of immersion. The intention was beautiful and the execution was mainly there, but it felt a little light which showed the imperfections in the bark which could have maybe been avoided with a darker brown. The rest of the elements were a few boxes and a table top that, although they were used effectively, felt a little cartoony compared with the rest of the design aesthetic.
The cast was made up of mostly young performers with two very able more-mature actors who played a multitude of roles. The enthusiasm and youthfulness of the cast shone through from the start to finish, but really came to light during their larger numbers including ‘My Junk’, ‘The Bitch of Living’ & ‘Totally F**ked’ which was arguably the highlight of the evening.
Oliver Lacey as Moritz Stiefel was a perfect casting as you both felt sorry for him and willed him to sort out his life. Lacey’s characterisation was so believable and his performance of “And Then There Were None” was mesmerizing. As an audience member it was important to see him finally express his thoughts and inner-turmoil, even if it was only to himself.
Other standouts include Elise Grieg as Adult Female, whose performance was always so well balanced and impeccably timed, Sammy Sand as Georg and his piano teacher infatuation and Tim Carroll as Hanschen Rilow, for arguably the most awkward masturbation scene in musical theatre.
You have to admire the enthusiasm of the team at Underground Broadway – it truly is infectious. They are creating some fantastic theatre – of both new and existing works – and deserve all the support they can get for their innovative ideas.
Tickets are available from https://www.metroarts.com.au/events/spring-awakening/
Spring Awakening runs until the 2nd of September, don’t miss out!