Showstoppers' innovative production of Spring Awakening has everything you could ever want - sex, death, rock 'n' roll, and tears, lots and lots of tears.
Before we get into this, there’s one very important thing to be mentioned: Spring Awakening is a *very* difficult play to put on. Centred on a group of teenagers’ coming of age in nineteenth century Germany, the play deals head-on with education, sexuality, repression, and suicide in a way that poses many questions and challenges to anyone who wants to bring it to life onstage. Musical theatre group Showstoppers have decided to accept this play’s huge challenge, and their bravery has paid off. Big time.
Showstoppers’ Summer show follows a group of six boys – Melchior (James Adams), Moritz (John Wilders), Hanschen (Josiah Chamberlain), Ernst (Will Fieldhouse), Georg (Nick Ong), and Otto (Maciek Shasha) – and six girls – Wendla (Phoebe Armstrong), Ilse (Samena Brunning), Thea (Charlotte Evans), Greta (Ellen Goggin), Anna (Harriet Harding), and Martha (Gem Tunley) – as they make their way through their teenage years. It becomes immediately apparent that the absurdly conservative principles society works on lock these kids in cages of unanswered questions. Even if the first one is Moritz wondering about a dream involving a woman’s legs after an intense Latin lesson, don’t be fooled by the lightheartedness – it’s only getting darker from there.
The tragedy of the show lies in the huge clash between the teenagers’ newly-discovered sexuality and the harshness of their education, both at school and at home. Between a school where the only thing that matters is the amount of lines from Homer and Virgil one can recite from memory, and parents with highly questionable disciplinary practices mostly based on secrecy, the teenagers are torn. And their deeply disturbing struggles are beautifully encompassed by a variety of musical moments that go from full-on rebellion to the most heart-wrenching pain.
This is what the production does best. The entire cast perform with delicacy and ease, matching the mood set by the absolutely marvellous folk-rock score every step of the way. The moments are carefully put together, with contemporary dance routines, plenty of goosebumps-inducing harmonies and even intertwined duets to complement the music. However, the stage space the Showstoppers have to work with is pitifully small, and it is truly impressive that they are able to use it so well. The live orchestra are wedged in the shadows behind the slim walkway stage, and much of the choreography is forced to take place on the floor (the view of which can sometimes be disrupted from seats further back in the auditorium). Nonetheless, much of the staging is innovative and creative, as choruses of students descend from the steps either side of the seats or rise from the blind-spot at the front of the stage directly beneath the first row.
The stage constantly overflows with talent, and the leading trio are truly dazzling as both actors and singers. John Wilders is a pleasure to watch as Moritz, whom he portrays with great sensitivity as he goes between quirkiness and utter despair (and he also has some true bangers to sing), while Phoebe Armstrong delivers a heartbreaking performance as Wendla. Armstrong completes an outstanding transition between acts, from innocent naive child to suffering woman – needless to say, she’s also got some real pipes to top it all off. James Adams truly shines as Melchior – the definition of the angsty (and pretty damn creepy) teen – with an impressive vocal range and an even more impressive set of acting skills that does his very complex part complete justice. His portrayal of grief is particularly striking – when he grieves, the entire audience grieves with him.
The tiny bit of comic relief in this play (apart from a couple of moments which we can’t spoil – trust us, you need every bit of joy you can get with this one) is brought very ingeniously by Emma Frazzitta and Ed Gill, AKA every adult woman and man in the play. Between three mums and the world’s most stuck up headmistress, Frazzitta comes on stage with a different mood every five minutes, while Gill has a blast teaching the hell out of some Latin, giving a sermon, and playing the well-beloved role of many crappy dads. As the evil headmasters, the duo walk in sync and share a weird slap/handshake before they scheme against their ‘morally corrupt’ students, and even if what they say is indicative of the repressiveness of the educational system (so not at all funny), the slap steals the show, and the audience laugh nervously in the few seconds of joy they are given.
As if the talent on stage wasn’t enough, there’s a mountain of it behind the stage as well. The band takes the wonderful score and elevates the entire audience with it as keys, guitar, violin, viola, cello, bass, drums come together flawlessly – if we hadn’t known better, we would have thought we’re at a rock-symphonic concert (honestly guys, if you ever put one on, please hit us up). A big shoutout goes to Musical Director Ben McQuigg, who would play the keys with one hand and conduct the band with the other like it’s a totally natural thing to do.
Spring Awakening is a brilliantly executed musical, bringing together acting, live music, singing and dancing on a stage that can barely accommodate it all. We left the theatre simultaneously heartbroken and elated. Elated because it’s great to know that while we’re struggling to write our dissertations, there’s a group of ridiculously talented people who can put on a show this good and write their dissertations at the same time – they really ‘got diss’.
Showstoppers’ Spring Awakening is on at the Annex Theatre until Saturday 4th May at 19:30. Tickets are available here.