Spoiler alert and trigger warning: this review discusses themes from the show that may be upsetting to some readers.
StageArt’s Victorian professional premier of Spring Awakening will challenge you. It’s not for those seeking a joyful night at theatre. You’ll be faced with difficult themes and uncomfortable scenarios while you’re treated to some fantastic music and actors.
Spring Awakening is a musical adaptation of the 1891 German play of the same name. It explores young people coming to terms with sexuality without any support or education from the adults in their lives. There’s no knowledge of the impacts of sex. There’s no one there to explain these new feelings and dreams they’re having. Any effort to get this information is either shut down or only spoken in euphemisms.
This production is a show of contradictions. It’s rock show but it’s musical theatre. It’s (questionable) German accents broken with American singing voices. It’s incredibly heavy but it’s humorous. The constant contradictions are reflective of how life really is. The whole world doesn’t stop when your personal world seems to.
Rhiannon Irving’s costumes and Rachel McLean’s hair and makeup are the key factors to set the time of the piece. The set of three raised platforms with a tree painted on them are framed with pillars, with instruments on the back wall. Jason Bovaird and Daniel Jow’s lighting are important for atmosphere and allow for a more intimate setting for Melchior and Wendla’s hay shed encounter.
Zoee Marsh’s choreography is contemporary and modern, further fuelling the contradictions of this show. It’s really quite beautiful and symbolic, or can be fairly obvious in its message. It’s a large cast, so the dynamic movement makes the set come alive, though sometimes it can be distracting. Other than a fairly clumsy start to the second act – lights suddenly changing, music suddenly stopping – the technical side of the show is remarkable.
Rock music with lots of voices and levels can be difficult to mix in theatre and it’s easy to lose voices. Marcello Lo Ricco’s mix is wonderful, allowing for a delightful blend of all sound. The band brings the music to life and is joined by various cast members playing instruments live. This is a testament to the talented cast to be able to sing, act, play instruments and dance.
Ashley Roussety as Melchior is commanding. His choice to pursue musical theatre has paid off. His performance is exceptional, particularly in “The Mirror-Blue Night”. Roussety’s ability to portray such a wide range of intense emotions is impressive. Jessie-Lou Yates as Wendla is consistently notable throughout as she depicts a young woman beginning to explore her own sexuality. Her naivety is endearing while her voice solidifies her as deserving of this challenging lead role.
Brent Trotter as Moritz spends his time on stage as a deeply conflicted young man. In his songs, more than others, there are some definite RENT/Larson vibes. It’s punk and full of attitude, yet Trotter walks the fine line between annoying teen angst and genuine struggle and pulls this off incredibly well. “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind (Reprise)” is his peak, pulling intense emotion into a deeply moving moment.
Ilse (Hannah McInerney) is a confusing character. There’s an air about her that infers she’s dead, particularly through using the purple and orange colours in costume to symbolise death of other characters, and the lack of interaction between her and other characters. Apparently, she’s just a free spirit. “Blue Wind” lets McInerney truly shine.
A special mention for Luisa Scrofani as Martha. She is mighty and gives an incredibly powerful performance in “The Dark I Know Well”. This heart-breaking moment is a highlight of the show.
Barry Mitchell fulfils the many roles of Adult Man. As Moritz’s father, his performance is deeply profound. Olivia Solomons works with Mitchell as Adul Woman and is just as scathing as she is heartfelt for characters that require some very quick changes.
“The Bitch of Living”, “My Junk” and “Totally Fucked” were opening night crowd favourites and offered more tongue-in-cheek tones than the rest of the show.
The use of hand-held microphones throughout is strange. Supposedly a throwback to the original production, this distracting choice can feel awkward as cast spend time taking them out of pockets and they get stuck. It does stir the impression that this is a play with music instead of a typical musical.
It’s easy to spend time as an audience member trying to digest the heaviness of this show and miss plot points or other aspects of the show. Being emotionally prepared for the heaviness of the content of this show is important, and the marketing felt misleading. It felt hyped up and teen-angsty, it didn’t feel existential and confronting like the show actually is. The warnings on the Chapel Off Chapel and StageArt websites include coarse language, nudity, sex scenes, adult content and parental guidance for people under 15 years old.
There’s a difference between watching a consensual sex scene and one where it’s inferred to be a grey area, or even non-consensual. For a musical so heavily marketed to younger people, the themes like suicide, abortion, non-consensual sex, sexuality confusion, abuse and violence seem surprisingly adult.
At the same time, perhaps this is StageArt’s entire point. Spring Awakening portrays young people struggling through without education or support. Perhaps the sense of unease the show imparts on the audience is intentional to make us feel closer to these characters. Just be prepared for that. It is another portrayal of sex being scary and dangerous in a world where that idea is far more harmful.
Spring Awakening is not uplifting or joyful. It’s not hopeful or optimistic. It could leave some people troubled. It is however a powerful piece of theatre exploring how difficult adolescence is.
StageArt presents Spring Awakening
Chapel off Chapel
12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran