I Went back to Williamstown for the opening night of Williamstown Musical Theatre Company’s Spring Awakening on Friday night and despite its dark and depressing plot in a story of oppression that I found similar to the film Dead Poets Society, it was a production that kicked off the new theatre season with a bang as big as they come and catapulted itself as an early front runner for next year’s award season.
Back in Williamstown’s director’s chair once again, Stuart Dodge decided to forego the minimalistic setting most commonly associated with Spring Awakening in favour of a creative vision that featured some of the most luxurious set design I’ve ever seen on the amateur stage; he gave all of his younger actors the chance to crossover into the more haunting side of theatre with some of their most emotionally mature performances to date and placed them on pedestals alongside the two older actors whose years of experience were a key influence to their portrayals; all this and so much more resulted in a raw and realistic directorial effort that covered the horrors of late nineteenth century German society via the differing morals of adults and adolescents. Musical director Stephen McMahon and his trusted band presented Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s pop, rock and folk inspired score so beautifully, you would think they composed it themselves with no vocalist out of time or key when they were complimenting orchestrations that saw a perfect blend of both angst and sadness and McMahon’s virtuosic and visionary turn behind the baton added to the soul crushing emotion the production thrives on and influenced each singer’s performance. Being a more dramatic show, I wasn’t expecting any heavy dance or movement routines but choreographer Gabrielle Pagano rose to the challenge and delivered dramatic dance displays that could have been plucked right out of an 80s or 90s rock video, utilising the art of visual storytelling through every step her dancers took in an intense yet impressive and illustrative choreographic presentation that bands like Guns N Roses, Bon Jovi and the Beastie Boys would have wanted to replicate.
For a cast that comprised of performers who all delivered some of their best work to date, we begin with the three individuals who portrayed Francisca, Marianna and Olge respectively, Alisha Jones, Daisy Shoebridge and Lou Martin; all of whom may have been listed as ensemble in the program but with their contributions to Spring Awakening as a whole being nothing short of imperative, I believe they deserved to be billed as principals with the rest of the cast as each full cast number sounded fuller and each scene was enhanced with more added heart thanks to their clear and crisp performances. For his harrowing and heartbreaking portrayal of Moritz Stiefel, Daniel Steer captured what it means to be lost and alone in the world as he’s forced by the adults in his life to feel shame for his personal and academic struggles until he sees no other way out, cutting the audience to the core with an all too real performance that got us thinking and had our hearts in pieces like shattered glass. India Morris and Ella O’Connor showcased what it’s like for a young woman to be abused simply for wanting to go their own way in life in their portrayals of Ilse Neumann and Martha Bessell with both of them shining a light on this sensitive issue without fear and it resulted in two respectful performances that allowed all victims of abuse to be seen and heard, making their takes all the more moving and melancholy. James Bourke and Tim Maguire were two of the biggest standouts of the night as Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel because their chemistry was stronger than electricity in the air even though none of their feelings were acted upon until halfway through the second act and their pivotal scene together could have made us believe that they were a couple in real life, especially with takes as beautiful and believable as this.
Will Huang, James McFadden, Georgia Chalfon and Tashiya Prins’ respective portrayals of Georg Zirschnitz, Otto Lämmermeier, Thea and Anna may not have been as prominent as other roles in Spring Awakening but they all constantly made their presence known in each scene they appeared in and made every moment of stage time count with noteworthy and nuanced performances that were instrumental to the masterful final result. Every controlling adult in the youths lives were portrayed by Andrew Roberts and Cat Adey, both of whom stood out in characterisations that were borderline evil but eloquent and emotional as they proved to the crowd how ignorance towards the needs of the younger generation can break one’s spirit and how psychologically scarring an adult’s actions can be to their overall wellbeing. The king and queen of the production were plain to see from the word jump and they were two performers who had the pleasure of portraying the male and female protagonists with talents and depth way beyond their years, Will Woods in the role of Melchior Gabor and Heidi Milne in the role of Wendla Bergman. Woods could easily garner award recognition once again for his daring, dashing and devastating performance in a role that he was born to play because we got to witness him get driven into despair by a society who want to see him pay the biggest price for his rightful free thinking so convincingly, it was practically method and to achieve this so soon after his previous role of Frank Jr in the more light hearted Catch Me If You Can by CLOC, is a testament to the great heights Woods can go in a theatre community that adore him beyond measure. As for Milne, her tragic, telling and tender portrayal of a young woman who wishes to explore her body on a path to sexual liberation but suffers a fate worse than death at the hands of people she was meant to trust the most could also be recognised in next year’s award season, especially when she captured Wendla’s pain externally and internally as if she had lived through something similar and Milne held the audience in the palm of her hands and had them on the edge of their seats like only the greatest of actors can in a performance that can turn her into a star.
No theatrical production with themes as strong as Spring Awakening’s can be presented correctly if they take the plot summary lightly and Williamstown assured us all early on that they were not going to hold anything back and despite causing our hearts such ache and sorrow with the troubling stories of each character, their latest spectacle captivated us from the moment the overture started to play. With performances that were impossible to fault and prod team work that was the definition of dedication to the craft, Spring Awakening is a production that cannot be missed as the new theatrical season begins and in a spectacle that may already be hard to match, I eagerly anticipate what great accomplishments everyone involved will bring to the table with their next outings. Special shoutout to Jayson Fry and Marcus Cassidy-Andersom for their work behind the scenes and giving me the blessed opportunity to review this show and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Spring Awakening for theatre at its finest. Missing this show will be the bitch of living so don’t do sadness and get your tickets as quick as you can, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations Williamstown for an unforgettable opening night, keep singing that song of purple summer and from the bottom of my heart, thank you for giving those who have been oppressed by the world a voice and a right to be heard.