Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Going Down Under - Spring Awakening - Musical Review

Spring Awakening - Sydney Theatre Company - Sydney, Australia - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Duncan Sheik, Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Based on the original play by Frank Wedekind, Directed by Geordie Brookman, Choreographed by Kate Champion
Runs until March 7th 2010

You know while I was in Sydney that I just HAD to see the latest incarnation of my favorite musical Spring Awakening, making its Australian debut in a newly conceived production by young hotstar director Geordie Brookman. I wish I didn't.

Regular readers know that I love the show. (Original Review, 2nd Review, 3rd Review, 4th Review, 5th Review, 6th Review, and 7th Review w/ new cast including Hunter Parrish, National Touring cast Review with Parry Sherman and Matt Doyle, National Touring Cast w/ Kyle Riabko Review) So you can assume that I love the book, music and lyrics.

I know there's the backlash against it now, and that the book leaves thin characters dangling, but I always saw it as a musical of vignettes that are less about the characters themselves, than the emotions they represent, and to some that's a weakness, but it's exactly why I find the show can be so powerful. However, the original Broadway staging by Michael Mayer brilliant adds layers to Sater and Sheik's musical and strengthens the modern day connections to the historical tale, while bringing out the nuances and hypocrisies within the story. Kevin Adams eclectic mood lighting, Christine Jones simple set and Bill T. Jones hyper-kinetic choreography only helped Mayer's stripped down approach to the modern emo-folk-rock opera.

So I'm not even going to try to ignore the original staging because having this brand new Sydney production so soon after the original will automatically invoke comparisons, and while I tried to go in with an open mind, Brookman's staging made it hard to see it as its own entity.

While Brookman and Champion attempt to mark their own stamp onto Sater and Sheik's Spring Awakening (where the book, lyrics and music remain the same), they borrow too much from the original to mark any vast differences, yet changes too much that it loses much of the original directorial intent. The new vision is thus different for the sake of being different, yet it's not different enough to truly become its own production, and I sat there wondering why they couldn't just import the original version in?

The new orchestrations by Robert Gavin shifts the original emo-rock band and gives the score a jazzier tone that completely deflates the harsh contrasts of Sheiks music with the 1890's setting.

While Australians seeing the show for the first time will think that Anna Tregloan's set is a minimalist approach, by comparison to the original, it sketches out an old farmhouse far more literally. With a hinging set, different settings are formed to create far more literal scenes, yet loses Christine Jones' uber minimalist symmetry and can-be-anywhere approach.

Brookman loses the microphones at first, but then brings them in for certain scenes. At times they are replaced by industrial lamps, but it's never clear why. Dangling lights, much like the blue ones that Kevin Adams descends into "The Mirror-Blue Night", is strung throughout the show, and much of the staging is similar, without any central symmetry that off-balances the show. There are some clever ideas used here but much of it seems superfluous and thrown in because it's neat and clever in the first place.

There's a far better clarity with Tess Schofield's costume design, especially in changing up the adult characters, still played here by a single Adult Woman and a single Adult Man, though to do so, we lose a brilliant subtle moment when we see the actors change characters within a single scene just by shifting their bodies and changing their voices.

Ilse is now portrayed as Avril Lavigne in her punk rock outfit, though luckily Angela Scundi gives one of the strongest performances turning Ilse into a believable tragic figure whose strength is a pure facade.

Akos Armont (above centre) delivers a wonderfully bruised performance as Moritz, and much like Scundi's Ilse, are the two performances that differ the greatest from the Broadway cast (originally portrayed by John Galagher Jr. (who won the Tony for his performance) and Lauren Pritchard, respectively) yet become the most believable and emotionally arresting performances from the Sydney company.

I can see that Brookman tried to tone down Mayer's broader directions to make it more tragic and realistic, but instead Brookman ends up dampening the spirit and energy of the piece, while losing any sense of humour that Sater's book has. The show is very funny on Broadway, but there is little humour existing at the Sydney Theatre. It becomes one dark and damp tragic piece with little to offset and exaggerate the difference in tones, which lets most of the peripheral characters muddle into a indistinguishable group. It's too bad since there's hints of great performances from Nicholas Kong as Otto and Scott Morris as Ernst but the staging offers little to individualize their small parts.

Kate Champion's choreography is erratic and pulsing... much like Bill T. Jones' choreography, and Champions ends up feeling like a watered down version of the original.

I didn't get to see Andrew Hazzard as Melchior, who is supposed to be terrific, and instead an unsure understudy Alex Woodward led the way as the lead male that could have used a bit more charisma and confidence. Wendla is played by Clare Bowen who resembles a cross between Kristen Dunst and Jayne Wisener (London Donmar's Parade and the film Sweeney Todd) and while her voice isn't as strong or clear as Lea Michelle's (who originated the role before joining Glee) (though who is?), I grew to like Bowen in the role, as she balanced the fragility and naiveness nicely.

Still, the musical should take you on an enthralling emotional journey that excites and hurts, and instead, the Brookman version feels limp and bland, and excises the most thrilling parts of the show and mutes it for the sake of realism (despite throwing in an odd industrial lamp here and there for some cool imagery and effect). Usually I leave Spring Awakening feeling invigorated and shaken, but I left the Sydney Theatre unaffected and neutral, possible the worst reaction one can have for what should be a great musical experience.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


crossoverman said...

It's been getting mixed reviews, but I still hope it tours, since I haven't seen the show at all.

Dangling lights are a recurring image in Brookman's shows.

And I'm glad you said something about Nick Kong, since I've seen him in small shows in Melbourne - as well as the lead in "bare", where he absolutely owned the show. Well, along with the girl who played Ivy.

Now do a review of our Wicked cast! :D

Steph said...

I think I saw a video about this on youtube, and I thought it was AWFUL. Granted, I haven't seen this incarnation, but it seems like it totally lost what Spring Awakening actually is.

I'm not saying that future incarnations of the show have to abide to the Broadway production. It just seems that the Sydney production was being scandalous for the sake of scandal.

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