Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review: (Vancouver) Spring Awakening

Siona Gareau-Brennan, Masae Day, Erica Hoeksema (photo credit: David Cooper)

Awakening the actor's spirit
Problems arise from casting and choreography
by Jay Catterson
Exploring teen angst and budding sexuality within the ultra-conservative confines of 19th century Germany was the basis of Frank Wedekind's controversial play, Spring Awakening, which tackled topics such as homosexuality, teen suicide, pregnancy, abortion, rape, and abuse like no episode of Degrassi could ever do. And this was back in 1891! Now fast forward to 2006, where Steven Sater joined forces with 90s alt-rocker Duncan Sheik to blend the original Wedekind source material with a thrilling rock score. The result? A massive Broadway hit, scoring a slew of awards, among them eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, a Grammy for Best Cast Album, and a legion of teen fans. 

Also the choreography by Shelley Stewart Hunt irritated me in subtle ways as well.
Now it's a miracle that Langara College's Studio 58, one of Canada's leading theatre programs, scored the rights to put on this show. (You can partially thank the demise of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company for that; they were scheduled to mount the show before they dissolved last year). Heck, the original Broadway production gave Glee stars Lea Michelle and (to a lesser extent) Jonathan Groff their starts, so it almost seems fitting for a company filled with youthful and aspiring theatre actors to mount a production. 
The good? Well, overall the production is directed with much gusto by David Hudgins, plus the musical direction by Andy Toth is tight, with a band that musically transcends the performers onstage. Performance-wise, the vocal standouts came not from the two leads (Lauren Jackson as the naive Wendla and Riun Garner as the intelligent radical Melchior, respectively), but from the supporting cast; namely William Ford Hopkins as Georg and Alex Strong as Ernst. Actually, I was disappointed that Hopkins wasn't given a more prominent role, for his acting chops delightfully complemented his gorgeous singing voice,  especially during the haunting "Touch Me". Stephanie Izsak's luscious vocal tone and wild, yet vulnerable delivery as Ilse proved to be another highlight of this production. Dallas Sauer was delightful as Moritz, even though he struggled with those high notes in "Don't Do Sadness"; his portrayal of the tormented teen was lovable yet heartbreaking at the same time (which leads me to believe that with more extensive vocal coaching, Sauer could become a musical tour de force).
My major gripe was with the lead Garner; although his acting was adequate, his Melchior often felt forced. Plus it didn't help that his vocals were the weakest of the bunch. His grating singing added fuel to the notion that (great) actors don't necessarily make great singers. It was interesting to see that he was helped by Hopkins during "The Mirror-Blue Night", who tackled his lofty tenor notes for him.
Also the choreography by Shelley Stewart Hunt irritated me in subtle ways as well. In the big musical numbers, such as "Totally Fucked" and "Bitch of Living" the choreography lived up to its effectiveness. However during the smaller moments, the movement reduced the show to the lows of a bad high school production. (Note to the choreographer: Please don't make your cast stand and sway during the final number. It's awful. Just don't do it. Ever.)
Should you go see it? Well, as it is the first time that production has ever been mounted in BC, it is worth experiencing Sater and Sheik's superb rock score delivered by such a tight onstage band. But part of me cannot forgive it for the cast's musical shortcomings. It should be noted that Studio 58 is not a musical theatre program per se; however, tackling a wildly successful rock musical behemoth with a cast that cannot live up to the vocal demands of such a show runs a huge risk of exposing such weaknesses, no matter how much raw, youthful bravado you throw at it. As for Studio 58's Spring Awakening, I'm afraid the production's blemishes need more than some makeup and acne creme to conceal them. 


  1. Hi Jay, I haven't seen the show but after reading your review I am more excited to see it. I am glad you mentioned that Studio 58 is NOT a muscial theatre school so for the show to have even been casted, choreographed, etc. within 4 short weeks given that its an acting school - I'd preferred to have read a little more about the "acting" part of the show. I'll leave that as a suprise for myself and friends when we go next weekend. However, your critical eye is respected and perhaps Studio 58 attempted this show as the current 2013 April graduates are outstanding performers and needed a challenge? Perhaps?

  2. Hello Jay. I also attended the performance of Spring Awakening already, and thought you may be interested in a correction or note to your review: it was Lauren Jackson who played the naive Wendla, not Erica Hoeksema.

    1. Jay sends his apologies. Correction has been made. Thank you for pointing this out.


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