Photo: Diamonds Edge Photography

Renegade Arts Co.
Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater

When & Where May 25 – June 10, 2023 | The Shop Theatre, 8877 Selkirk St., Vancouver

Reviewer Eve Newstead

A musical about sex, suicide and rock ‘n’ roll? No wonder Spring Awakening turned heads and won Tonys when it hit Broadway back in 2006. But then where did it go? After much praise and celebration, the provocative musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater dropped off stages. Now, Renegade Arts remind Vancouver of its hilarity and poignancy.

The story follows a group of teenagers in repressive late-19th-century Germany as they experience that pubescent awakening we all (whether with fondness or anguish) remember. A title like Spring Awakening belies the angst and ache of adolescence which this musical explores; the beauties of life are discovered, but so are the dangers –rape, violence, abortion, suicide and sadism. The play it was adapted from, written by Frank Wedekind in 1981, was banned and censored contemporaneously and in decades to follow for its explicit scenes of violence and sex.

Whilst perhaps not so shocking in 2023, Renegade does well to maintain its rebelliousness and unflinching interrogations of human immorality and desire. When Martha (Cassidy Hergott) reveals she is physically and sexually abused by her father - ‘The Dark I Know Well’ – the male members of the cast descend on mass, yanking her and Ilse with red ribbons. This scene has real power, let down only marginally by the lack of depth and reach of the vocals.

On stage chemistry, from tenderness to raw desire, is stark. Intimacy Director (Phay Moores) is apt in depicting the complexities of sex. Protagonists Wendla and Melchior, played with veracity by Nicole Laurent and Stephen Myers respectively, discover that despite what they are taught by their elders, sex is not shameful but beautiful and celebratory. The same is said for gay sex with the union of Hanschen (Loughran Macleod) and Ernst (Hans Gorre), whose harmonising and endearing spark are stand out.

Other stripped back scenes such as this are the strength of the production. For the big numbers, the choreography and personalities are loud and boldly matched to the rock score. Sometimes they seriously impress. However, frequently the former is uninspired and shaken by uncertainness as well as lack of refinement. The foot stomping emulates the original cast’s performance on Broadway but is not fit for Shop Theatre’s small stage. Another issue with producing a Broadway musical in a small theatre derives from the use of floor space. By utilising different heights, the direction is varied. Yet, much of the action on the floor is impossible to see unless you are in the front rows. Perhaps a set with more raised levels would be beneficial.

Despite this, the dynamism of the cast is felt keenly. Whilst they lack some of the harder edges of rock, their energy is infectious. The balance between darkness and humour is perfection; exemplified by Gus Moutafis’ portrayal of Moritz. And Rebecca Zanni as Ilse is one to watch.

It cannot be ignored that for all this musical’s steaminess, the heat at Shop Theatre is mainly down to its complete lack of ventilation. Despite outside respite at the interval, the space becomes stifling and uncomfortable. The fanning audience members provide a visual distraction; the rising heat, a physical one.

So go and see Spring Awakening – it will surprise and entertain – but take a seat near the front and prepare to sweat.

© 2023 Eve Newstead