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Spring Awakening

Sydney Theatre Company present SPRING AWAKENING. A New Musical. Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the original play by Frank Wedekind. At the Sydney Theatre.

Oh, look……
Oh, boy…..
Oh, wow…..
Oh, woe……

I deliberately waited until late in the season (the last week, in fact) before attending this production. Neither the press reviews or the “word of mouth” was particularly encouraging about this production. [Less than half a theatre full.] I knew that the company were young and mostly inexperienced and a big musical (I have seen it in New York) needs proper time to find its ‘footing’ etc. I thought that time would assist the production to grow into its full potential. Unfortunately, the Sydney Theatre Company have merely produced a creditable community theatre version of this Broadway work.

The original Broadway production received “eleven 2007 Tony Award nominations, winning eight, including for Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Feature Actor. The show also won four Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical.” This is not necessarily able to be appreciated in this production of the work (I personally felt that GREY GARDENS and even THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (The Melbourne Theatre Company have just produced it), which I also saw on Broadway that same season, were better examples of the genre than SPRING AWAKENING, but a Tony Award is a Tony Award and the Broadway people should know!!!!)

In the program notes there is an ‘essay’ from the Assistant Director, Mark Grentell, telling us of the process of getting the show on here in Sydney. The long selection time to find this cast is told to us. When reading the curricula vitae of the performance experience, even the training for most of these young performers, chosen to present this work, it may be the first hint of where problems may have begun. From memory the casting on Broadway was of performers considerably better trained and seasoned, and considerably older than this company. The musical abilities and acting abilities of that company were outstanding, and their dynamic energy, may have been the major reason around the hype of this show. Certainly the Rock and Roll-Metal-Punk heritage of the score was evident in the connection that those artists delivered to the auditorium. The Sydney production cast has a history of training and experience that is enormously varied (from Opera Training to literally High School practice) and still, mostly, formative. They look as if they are been asked to produce and sustain, professionally, a work that technically and experience-wise, is way beyond their present skills, which mostly appear to be potential. (Although the raspy voices of some of these performers at my performance might have already excluded even potential.)

The two leading characters Melchior (Andrew Hazzard) and Moritz (Akos Armont) did not seem able to sing comfortably and/or sustain the demands of the vocal demands of the musical scoring that had been written for them. (Sometimes flat in sound.) This seems unfair to these two young men no matter what their ambition. Mr Armont, maybe in compensation, gives a performance of such overwrought energy that the splitting of the atom could possibly be achieved with otherwise directed focus. So out of control was it, on Wednesday night, that he did obliterate a cup on the stage with mis-directed energy, shattering it in pieces, causing the re-entrance of another actor, presumably at the direction of the stage management (probably for OH&S reasons) to pick up the pieces, which then resulted in Mr Armont “corpsing” with laughter subsequently, up stage, but visibly for the audience to appreciate. Later the sheer portentous choices that Mr Armont, assumedly with the blessing of the Director (Geordie Brookman), has built into the suicide moments of the second act were so extended that it was hard to sustain belief in the reality of the moment – A tragedy for the drama of the play, surely? Mr Hazzard, mostly, gives the acting of Melchoir credence and empathy. In fact the two young lovers are an attractive pairing. For I also felt that Clare Bowen (Wendla) gave the most interesting performance of the principals – raw skills but centred to the demands of the work and seems to be comfortable with the musical demands (still appeared nervous about them.) Jamie Ward (Hanschen) has presence. There are some promising voices in this company, Edward Grey, Nicholas Kong, but for the most part, the collective ‘choir’ singing is what mostly impressed.

Geordie Brookman, the Director, who I have admired in other work (TENDER, BAGHDAD WEDDING, TOY SYMPHONY) seems unable to manage this genre of theatre, either the scale or traditions (the casting a first faltering step?), attempting to shoe horn his respect, maybe, for the original play and playwright, Wedekind, into this original musical adaptation of it. Very different enterprises. The Set Design by Anna Tregloan is simply puzzling as a solution to this work (ugly, even). The Costume Design by Tess Schofield, is as usual strong – although maybe some of the actor driven details eg. Moritz’s tatts and the costume for Ilse (Angela Scuni) a little incongruous, relatively. Kate Champion as Choreographer (I much admired her Force Majeure work THE AGE I’M IN) does not seem to have the right solutions – lyrical and distracting with only occasional forays into the punk energy of, say, the demands of TOTALLY FUCKED, late in the second act. The lighting by Niklas Pajanti was the most successful element of the experience. It moved, almost, choreographically. (Thank God, something to watch!)

I should have paid attention to the review by Deborah Jones in The Australian newspaper instead of paying $105 (including another abominable program ($15) from the STC: 1. The information – paltry and dull. 2. the Design eg. Red ink on a coloured background does not make for easy deciphering or reading. $15!!!!, I could by a Classic novel for the money.) Please read Ms Jones’ review. She knows what’s what about this genre.

This is the first non-replica English speaking production of the show, the program notes boast, and the Broadway people, usually do not permit it. This production may be a good reason for them to keep up the old policy. Having seen both the Broadway and Sydney Theatre Company productions the quality of product is startlingly different. The Sydney Theatre Company production does not match the original in any area.

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1 replies to “Spring Awakening”

  1. If anything, this is too kind. The fault lies, I'm afraid, in artistic direction. To give a young and comparatively inexperienced director, as his first mainstage production with a major company, a musical (not a very good one, despite the Tonys, and despite my having enjoyed it in NY as you did) when he seems to be inexperienced in that difficult and specialized form; further, to allow him to cast a largely inexperienced and untrained (or so it seemed to me) cast, many or most of whom were making their professional debut; further, to cast them on their singing audition mainly (this is hearsay, but borne out for me by the production; the acting was at fair-only high schnol musical level, and very few words of the songs were intelligible); further, to give artistic approval to a bad and, as you say, ugly set; further, to allow him to use it so badly (eg, the upper level was surely intended to be the hayloft where Wendla finds Melchior masturbating; perversely, this was staged on the lower level, sans masturbation) – all this proclaims lack of artistic direction and supervision.

    One of the many tasks and considerations of artistic directors is to have a care for shaping the careers of employees. It was not only a serious mistake to give Geordie Brookman this job: it was unkind. He will struggle to be offered another play to direct with a major company – in Sydney, anyway. And this is a pity, for, like you, I enjoyed his production Downstairs at Belvoir St. it would be a brave and self-aware person who turned down such an offer. Neil Armfield at about the same age, however, did when offered the STC of SA, knowing that he had had no experience at the time as artistic director or administrator.

    So the blame can be sheeted home to the STC Board, for choosing two people with little or no experience of direction, artistic direction, administration, or working within a company.

    I regret my posting this anonymously, but I, coward, do so, as the 'unholy trade' (Henry James's term for the theatrical 'profession') is pretty small in this town. In this country.

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