Sunday, 12 April 2015

Spring Awakening - Fresh Bred Productions (10 April 2015)

Hot on the heels of the performance of Frank Wedekind’s 19th century play at Curtin University last month comes the Tony Award winning musical adaptation, presented by Fresh Bred Productions. Fresh Bred hit the scene in February last year with the Patrick Marber play Closer which was followed by their first musical, The Last Five Years, in August. They appear to have found a home at UWA’s Dolphin Theatre and a niche in mounting ambitious musical theatre productions with Sweeney Todd up next. Even Closer betrayed their intentions with an original score composed by regular musical collaborator Kohan Van Sambeeck.

Having seen the source material only a month ago certainly helped my understanding of the story but what struck me most was this: how audacious it was to take a play written in 1891 and turn it into a rock musical. It is testament to the thematic potency of the original even though some of the darkest aspects have been toned down for the different format. There’s still plenty of honest and uncomfortable examination of teenage sexual awakening in its various forms married to a superb set of songs.

Here lies the strength of this production. The orchestra, led by Musical Director Joshua James Webb, was terrific throughout. The music by Duncan Sheik is an impressive yet eclectic mix of strings and more rock oriented elements – electric guitars and drums - with Webb on keyboards. This collection of musicians certainly knew how to rock when required – The Bitch of Living and Totally Fucked for example – but was perhaps even sharper when providing the mood and atmosphere to numbers like Whispering and Touch Me. Situated at the back of stage behind the gauze stripped ‘trees’ representing the German woods, they were tight and focussed with the only blemish a false start at the beginning of the second act but that appeared to be related to a backstage issue. Well played Van Sambeeck (percussion), Hanna Lee-Smith (Violin/Guitar), Cristina Filgueira (Viola), Beren Scott (Cello/Violin), Tim Perren (Electric Bass), Ben Griffith (Guitar) and Webb (Piano/Conductor).

Matching the musicians was the vocal talent on display. This really was a strong cast from a singing perspective – the featured vocalists excelled and were given tremendous support from the ensemble. I had not come across Madeline Crofts (Wendla) before but she set the tone from the beginning with Mama Who Bore Me and sang beautifully throughout with Whispering a highlight. Finn Alexander (Melchior) unfortunately had a dead microphone for the opening sequences which cruelled All That’s Known but once that technical problem was rectified he too showcased a fine voice, notably in songs like Touch Me. Both impressed with their acting skills especially in two pivotal scenes – the beating of Wendla with the switch and the now more ambiguous sexual congress that ends the first act. 

Cal Silberstein played Moritz with an exuberance that marked the character’s incarnation here as most recognisably a musical theatre construct as distinct from the more sombre version in the original play. He did it well in the first act driving a lot of the comedic energy but this gave way to darker hues at the end of the first (And Then There Were None) and into the second that provided a nice arc. Kimberley Harris, another fine singer, was an almost ever present observer as Ilse with a featured scene with Silberstein in Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind. The musical started with the teenagers seemingly listening to Ilse intently and that configuration was reprised at the end as if she was relating the tale just witnessed. Indeed the whole company was almost always in sight with the ensemble in the wings and actively watching when not in a scene. The Ilse character also appeared to take on aspects of the Masked Man who has been otherwise excised from the adaptation.

Naomi Denny (Martha) had a notable moment with The Dark I Know Well and the effective welt makeup on her shoulder elicited an appropriate audience response when revealed before that song. Sven Ironside made for a charismatic, mischievous Hanschen and his work with Andrew Longo (Ernst), particularly during The Word of Your Body (Reprise) was playful but hauntingly beautiful as well. I really enjoyed the acting work of Michael MacCuish who added real authority and presence in the ‘Adult Men’ roles, and Nat Burbage played a mix of stern adult female authority figures and the more emotional mother roles.

The set harked back to the setting of the source material with the woods and classroom represented in minimalist style before we switch to the Reformatory and graveyard in the second act. There was an interesting use of glow sticks during the raucous Totally Fucked which gave a real sense of energy but jarred a little stylistically. The cast was buoyant during The Song of Purple Summer and final bows. Having been in rehearsals since November the hard work and preparation was evident in particularly the musical and vocal quality on display.  

Adapted from the Frank Wedekind play with Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater and Music by Duncan Sheik, Spring Awakening is directed by Craig Griffen with Musical Direction by Joshua James Webb. It stars Finn Alexander, Cal Silberstein, Madeline Crofts, Nat Burbage, Michael MacCuish, Pete Martis, Daniel Kirkby, Sven Ironside, Andrew Longo, Shanice Palfrey, Olivia Everett, Naomi Denny and Kimberley Harris. There are two more shows at UWA’s Dolphin Theatre, 17-18 April.

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