Spring has sprung at LAMTA in a spectacular way with their much-anticipated final student production for 2023. SPRING AWAKENING at Theatre on the Bay completely lives up to the hype of this Tony Award winning sensation.
The musical is an adaptation by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name. The power of this play-meets-musical is not in the sharing of the title, but perhaps best encapsulated by Wedekind’s subtitle, “A Tragedy of Childhood”, which is drawn through as tone into the musical. Tragedy complimented by gloomy humour is the essence that is captured by both versions, but while the play has often been banned, the musical found a way to break through with mainstream success by making the darker side of the play more digestible to the general public, while still retaining something of the taboo nature of the original vision.
What is great about the current production of SPRING AWAKENING is that it seems to pay homage to Wedekind’s darkness in direction and design choices. It taps into the essence of the tale of “longing, desire, and frustration”, as described by Sater, in sharing a hero’s journey through an oppressive reality in an almost operatically tragic fashion.
Complex themes of abortion, sex, child abuse, and suicide are explored through the lens of self-discovery, rebellion, religious skepticism, and freedom of expression in the context of the 19th century, but with a rock music twist. A musical of contradictions, it should not work, especially if one considers that Wedeman’s vision is set in 1890s provincial Germany, but somehow SPRING AWAKENING has carved out a phenomenal space for itself in the history of musical theatre. That is the space the LAMTA students celebrate with their performance of this hit production.
The original play was destined to be a rock musical if one considers that Wedekind was an avid guitar player. The rhythm that was begging to be explored is underlying in the language, humour and character of his writing. As such, it is no surprise that SPRING AWAKENING as a musical embraces his classical diction with rock undertones.
Sylvaine Strike’s direction is perfect for the theatricality that this unique musical requires to bring together all the apparently juxtaposed elements. Strike clearly draws influence from the play in the character choices made. An example of this being her highlighting the cruel character of the teachers at the centre of the brutal treatment of the inquisitive youth through vulture like mannerisms.
The cast seamlessly step into the shoes of their characters with raw emotion and passion, revealing their understanding of these elements with the change in tempo and tone that runs throughout the production, a clear indication of the astute guidance of musical directors Amy Campbell and Anton Luitingh. This is further emphasised through clever choreography devised by Anna Olivier and Naoline Quinzen under the choreographic supervision of Duane Alexander.
Niall Griffin’s design is austere perfection, a faultless backdrop to the story of teenage naivety, sexual discovery, and rebellion in an oppressive 19th century Lutheran culture context. The music practically bounces off the bespoke, environmentally friendly walls and elevates the vivid performances of the cast.
This production is proof of the power of a strong ensemble. Even though the characters of Malchior, Wendla and Moritzare are technically identifiable as the leads, much like Wedekind’s play the musical celebrates the stories of ‘minor’ characters too, all are interlinked and part of the tapestry that is SPRING AWAKENING. For this reason, and the fact that all performances in the current staging are praiseworthy, it seems unfair to single anyone out: They are all musical stars in the making. And as it is with every LAMTA production I see, I am yet again reminded that the future of musical theatre is in very talented hands.
Some professionals can take note of the onstage synergy presented by this student ensemble. Everyone works together to make the production shine, no one trying to outperform another, the telling of the tale foremost in all they do. This is true of the two professionals, Francis Chouler and Natalie Robbie, in the roles of the various adults too. All is done in service of the story.
I sat in the theatre rocking out in my seat with the cast’s renditions of “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked”, sobbed quietly at the performances of “Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind” and “Left Behind”, while finding solace in the solidarity of “My Junk” and clinging to the notes of hope that ring through the closing performance of “The Song of Purple Summer”. SPRING AWAKENING remains a musical of anthems for the ages, for everyone and anyone who is questioning their purpose and reality in the greater scheme of an all to obviously cruel world.
SPRING AWAKENING is onstage at Theatre on the Bay for a limited season, until 3 December 2023, with tickets available for booking through Webtickets. Please note that Spring Awakening contains mature themes, partial nudity, sexual situations as well as explicit language. No persons under 13.
And yes, you will be “totally fucked” if you don’t go see SPRING AWAKENING!