Friday, 25 November 2016

Spring Awakening, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

Phoenix Players has spent 2016 doing two of the more innovative Broadway musicals of recent years, and have picked two very actor-focussed shows with strong modern-rock foundations and dealing with deep emotional undercurrents. In the case of "Spring Awakening", it's a teen-focussed show based on Frank Wederkind's 1891 play, showing in some ways how little our understanding of adolescent sexuality has really progressed in a century or so.

Being teen based, there's a lotta angst on display here, as innocence gives way to brutal experience. The main innovation of writers Steven Sater and Duncan Shiek is that the explosions of angst are modern alternative-rock, while the other action stays in 1890s period. The songs are virtually all internal expressions of the character's feelings rather than representing any dialogue (and as such, the usual risk of rock musicals, that the lyrics are rambling and unfocussed, sorta works as these teen characters are themselves not entirely understanding the new emotions that have hit them - it's broad emotional expression rather than tight analytic understanding).

In all honesty, I do think the material wobbles a little towards the end (as it struggles to find a solid resolution to the cavalcade of teen horrors - Wederkind's ending is not very much better than what's written, although the final "Song of Purple Summer" appears strangely detatched from the remaining action and there simply to have a more calming song before sending the audience back out into the world rather than leaving them depressed), but Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts' production barely falters. Their staging has the young cast often at the edge of scenes they're not otherwise involved in, observing silently. And when it breaks out into dance frenzy it's alive and urgent.

The cast is frequently outstanding. Pip Caroll in particular as Moritz is virtually an exposed wound of pain for roughly the entire evening, but he's never less than completely engrossing - angst and bewilderment and barely repressed rage as the adult world gets increasingly confusing and oppressive to him. Kailtlin Nihill is a yearning innocent, not at all aware that she's starting to be perceived as an adult, plus she has a singing voice with endless beauty. Callum Bodman as the somewhat more cynical Melchior becomes the focus of the latter half of the show and frequently scores well, though I think there are instances where he could profitably hold back on the emoting - there is a bit too much wild signalling rather than truly expressing Melchior's inner frustrations. Kelda McManus and David Cannell as all the adult characters switch modes regularly as the different adults find ways to oppress or disappoint the children under their charge. The eight other young performers are similarly strong, although the writing for them frequently leaves them a little abandoned - minor characters often come into focus to reveal some secret about themselves only to disappear back into the background again.

Chris Zuber's set largely of wooden shipping palettes gives a good stark backdrop to the action, with plenty of options to show moments of strange beauty. Matt Webster's musical direction is immaculate - he gets great harmonies out of his cast and great sounds out of his band. The sound balance (which I've bitched about so often in musicals) is damn fantastic - whatever's been learned here, can this be the standard for Canberra shows going forward? Cause that would be awesome. Hamish McConchie's lighting design is similarly solid, switching effortlessly from existential inner angst to thrash-rocking-out.

This is an immaculate presentation of a show that is a great expression of the frustrations of adolescence. Well worth the watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment