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