REVIEW: Spring Awakening
A proficient, if not dazzling, performance of a modern classic, says DANI CUGINI
Spring Awakening is a play about sex.
It’s also one of the most nuanced, true-to life shows written in recent memory: it’s funny, sad, wistful, disturbing, explosive and a fantastically complex portrayal of sexual awakening. Moritz is haunted by the dreams he has of a woman’s legs; Wendla wants to know how babies are made, but her mother refuses to give a straight answer; Melchior wants to ‘rock the boat’, to break the system of ignorance their parents have placed upon them.
As the small group of teenagers tries to navigate their newfound sexuality, fantasy and first love are interspersed with darker turns into the tumultuous minds of the characters. But even at its most disturbing, Spring Awakening is never bleak: the songs are explosive, set alight with the characters’ hope that things will get better.
The Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s production of Spring Awakening is enjoyable and a faithful retelling of the original, even if it’s not as polished as it could be (perhaps somewhat attributable to first-night jitters). The singing that drives the show is bright and clear, though never exquisite, and provides some of the most memorable moments, from Martha and Ilse’s poignant solos in ‘The Dark I Know Well’ to the boys’ playful lamentations on frustrated sexuality in ‘The Bitch of Living’.
The musical element of Spring Awakening is pushed into a supporting role by the superior quality of the acting, which is perhaps a shame, although likely exacerbated by the sound issues at the first show (microphones being off, principally, making it hard to hear some of the vocals). The actual quality of the singing is good and on occasion beautiful, with only a few missed high notes.
But it is the acting which is, frequently, brilliant. Every role in the small cast is done justice, but there were some standout performances. Melchior’s (Ben Cisneros) charisma and rebellious arrogance is tinged with a subtle hint of uncertainty, while Joe Beighton‘s Moritz is arresting, perpetually shaking with nervous energy. The scenes between these two are some of the funniest in the show (“It’s as if the entire world is mesmerised by penis and vagina.” “Well, I am!”).
The hilariously narcissistic Hanschen (James Daly) also deserves a mention, if only for his seamless manipulation of naive romantic Ernst (Benedict Welch). All the girls are great at not letting their characters’ naivety overpower their fierceness, but Julia Kass’s portrayal of Ilse is particularly ingenious: she’s only prominent for one scene and two songs, usually flitting about in the background like a mad ghost, but her unflinching hope for the future anchors the entire show and brings it to its resolution.
Apart from the minor sound issues, the direction is mostly seamless, and the stage is perfect, with two simple raised platforms and a structure in the background which forms the vehicle for the pivotal scene of sexual awakening. The lighting is beautiful, with tiny bulbs on strings obscured slightly by smoke, mimicking the ‘stars’ that are so often brought up by the characters.
One aspect of the general direction that is at times a little dubious, however, is the dance choreography during the musical numbers. The thrashing and kicking of ‘The Bitch of Living’ is great, but at other times some of the moves can resemble a 12-year-old’s at a birthday disco. That aside, it’s a lovely and faithful retelling of the original musical, and no student can fail to at least feel a pull of resonance with the feelings of uncertainty and excitement around sex and relationships that we felt then, and are often still feeling now.
Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it enjoyable? Yes. It’s a brilliant story that is translated well onto the ADC stage, and I’d recommend it for musical lovers and non-musical lovers alike.