Review: Spring Awakening (BATS Theatre)

April 18, 2018

If there's one theme to attract a wide audience, it is coming of age. Relatable for teenagers, nostalgic for adults, and with the means to hold as much or as little emotional heft as the creators see fit. "Spring Awakening", WITCH's adaption of the Broadway musical (based on Frank Wedenkind's play of the same name), introduces us to a group of school students in 19th Century Germany, contending with the usual adolescent gripes of parents, teachers and hormones in an oppressive society that refuses to teach them about adulthood. At the heart of the story is a romance between Wendla Bergman (Jessica Old), an innocent but curious young woman, and Melchior Gabor (Maxwell Apse), a radicalised childhood friend, in whom she finds intellectual escapism. Oh, and all this is to an alt-rock soundtrack by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

 

However, to tell you the truth I did not hear a great deal of alt-rock influence in the songs, aside from Old's Alanis Morissette-esque rendition of "Mama Who Bore Me". Most came off as unmemorable but energetically and earnestly performed musical numbers. But no matter; the performances surrounding them and the musical direction from Michael Nicholas Williams elevated them and emphasises the comradeship of the young people. There are some strong performances nestled among the cast; Greer Samuel and Cassandra Tse give heartfelt performances as young women facing hardship at the hands of misfortune and mistreatment. Sadly their story lines were neglected, either in this production or in this musical as a whole, but in either case, this piece seems like a waste of their talents and a bit of a wasted narrative thread for the audience.

 

Old fulfills her character's childlike charm, though she is not given an awful lot of depth, particularly in comparison to her charismatic love interest (either in the writing or in the performance). Apse is a perfect fit for the role, confident in his wisdom and attractiveness with only a touch of smugness. In both their cases though, they come off as too grown up for their own good, their language and delivery at odds with their naive demeanours. Their relationship is founded on their mutual sapiosexuality, but when that is taken away their chemistry comes off as forced, and a product of narrative necessity.

 

 

I attribute this more to Ben Emerson's direction than to Old and Apse. The tone (whether comedic or emotional) works and transitions smoothly throughout, and the use of space and stage imagery is often striking (in particular the setting of a pond by a tree, whose branches consist of the arms of the ensemble beckoning a shy Wendla over to Melchior). Sadly though the romance between the leads is not the only aspect that feels slightly incohesive. For a musical with a lot of deep and real themes surrounding sex, the various narrative strands peter out unceremoniously and undeveloped. More importantly, the combination of mature performances, direction, and writing, result in the impression that we are not supposed to relate to these characters at all. Political, rebellious, mature and yet youthfully lustful? This sounds more like an adults fantasy of their own youth than a relatable depiction of reality. This may be intentional, the purposefully over-the-top performances of the teacher and principle would suggest as much, but aside from the edginess of the musical number "Totally Fucked", it came off as a very generous reimagining of the artist's former selves.

 

 

For a reimagining of youth though, "Spring Awakening" is gorgeous to look at. The traditional shorts, shirts and plain practical dresses, and the rustic set pieces, juxtapose the purple, pink and blue lighting filling the space with the aid of a smoke machine, to give a sense of possibility, opportunity, and almost wonder as these young people transition into adulthood. The tone is reflected in the far more sombre setting and lighting in later scenes when they collide with the harsher aspects of adulthood. The design has done justice to its Broadway counterpart.

 

Then there is the issue of the musical itself. The tragedy in the story is addressed from a romanticised and typically musical angle that I honestly found uncomfortable to watch. A hefty dose of salt is needed to look over some of the choices the characters make in order to see them as the love-strewn and misguided youths the show wants us to believe they are, particularly when I remain so unconvinced by their youth and innocence in the first place. It is, nonetheless, a faithful adaptation of a beloved musical with impressive performances and production value. For fans, it will not disappoint, but for anyone else, you may not be so easily swept off your feet. Three stars.

 

Whispers from the crowd:

"I was really going in blind"

"I really enjoyed it, how sex and death are always intertwined, it was really interesting. It was a good moral tale -"

"- this is why we need sex education!"

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