Maverick Life

THEATRE REVIEW

‘Spring Awakening’ — a blueprint-defying musical that refuses to fall in line with mediocrity

‘Spring Awakening’ — a blueprint-defying musical that refuses to fall in line with mediocrity
Scarlett Pay as Wendla and Dylan Janse van Rensburg as Melchior in LAMTA's production of 'Spring Awakening'. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Back for a new season of month-long performances in Cape Town and Joburg, LAMTA’s production of the 2006 musical, ‘Spring Awakening’, is kind of soul-shattering. A compelling story rooted in complex characters, it dares to tackle meaty issues in a gutsy, non-formulaic manner while its emotional touchpoints refuse to let you get away unscathed.

There are plenty of shocking moments. Such as seeing conservatively dressed 19th-century German schoolboys, one moment lethargically reciting Latin while being picked on by their slimy schoolmaster, the next moment whipping out their handheld mics and rocking out like they’re at a punk concert. They belt out their rebellious lyrics in a display of anachronistic fervour; they stomp the stage, they dance on their chairs, there’s even crowdsurfing.

That’s when you realise – quite rightly – that this is not your average “five-six-seven-eight” musical. 

Already you’ll have had your heartstrings plucked by an angel-voiced Scarlett Pay who, during the opening number, uses her potent singing skills to illuminate the fateful naïveté and innocence of a sweet, sexually curious girl named Wendla.

And, in due course, there will be a hilarious and heartfelt homoerotic duet during a seduction scene with a self-confident seducer and a boy who is oh-so-willingly seduced. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rude awakening? In this daring musical, rebellious teens sing about sexual discovery and other struggles

There’ll be your own wide-eyed surprise as you tap your toes and probably dance a bit in your seat to Totally Fucked with its forthright lyrics and catchy tune. And your fits of laughter during a lengthy scene of brilliantly unbridled masturbation. 

Or those scenes that comedically grapple with all the weird and wonderful things that can become objects of erotic desire. The racy, zany comedy of a horny teenage boy’s fantasy as he gets worked up by his piano teacher’s bosoms. 

Scarlett Pay and Dylan Janse van Rensburg as the young lovers, Wendla and Melchior, in LAMTA’s production of ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Johnathan Conrad plays Moritz in ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Spring Awakening

Johnathan Conrad as anxious and overwhelmed Moritz in ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

One number – Touch Me – evokes the sensation of your first orgasm.

And there’s a young man’s bare bum during scene of virginal lovemaking, rendered with unblushing, unflinching sincerity, its realness a sobering counterpoint to all the gloriously frolicsome hip-thrusting and pounding pandemonium of the more energetic musical numbers, choreographed to leave you breathless.

It’s one hell of a sexy musical, and unapologetically so.

But, be warned: Spring Awakening, back on the boards in Cape Town (and, in April in Johannesburg) after a short season late last year, is not your typical night of sugar-coated escapism.

Too often, “musical theatre” is a catch-all phrase used to describe easy, frivolous entertainment, synonymous with toe-tapping tunes, rehashed dance moves and a kind of comfortable, comforting emotional slide towards a happy ending, oftentimes encouraging the audience to clap along at the end as though the entire world has been transformed into some sort of kumbaya utopia where every problem can be resolved with a feel-good song, a dopamine rush that works like a plaster to temporarily seal the wound. 

If that form of “merrily-we-roll-along” entertainment is what you prefer, you might be taken aback by Spring Awakening’s resounding refusal to fall in step with convention. The anachronistic rock music is only the first of its many intentional shocks.

In the centre is Scarlett Pay as Wendla, in LAMTA’s production of ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Dylan Janse van Rensburg plays the young hero, Melchior, in ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Dylan Janse van Rensburg plays Melchior, who is on a hero’s journey in ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

For one thing, unlike most musicals, Spring Awakening’s songs aren’t there to merely propel the story forward, but to reveal the unsayable, the characters’ hard-to-express emotional interior. It’s from the songs that we learn of their often harrowing inner lives. We don’t so much get their turmoil explained to us but are instead made to feel what they’re feeling.

While the stage is absolutely awash with hormones, what’s more in focus is the intrigue, exasperation, confusion and even panic that arises as a result of the onset of puberty with all its unexpectedly aroused body parts, erotic dreams and forbidden fantasies.

And, apart from many of the universal frustrations and fears experienced during puberty, more malignant issues are examined, too. It’s here that Spring Awakening fearlessly gets its fingers dirty, penetrates deeply into the darker quadrants of human frailty: In this world, children are physically and sexually abused, parents beat their sons and daughters, teachers conspire to break those who need their support the most, and the church preaches its message from on high but is never a force for guidance or love.

Rooted in the dynamics of ultra-conservative Lutheran society in late 19th-century Germany where the adults are too embarrassed or too prudish to talk openly to their offspring, children are forced to make their own way in the world. Their discoveries run the gamut – from boys learning that those weird, wet dreams are perfectly normal, to hearing that a girl is being abused by her own father. 

It is unsparing in its sensitivity to the inner-world experiences of the children it portrays.

Among the adults in ‘Spring Awakening’ are two scheming teachers whose physicality is almost vulture-like. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

During its initial run in New York, where it won the 2007 Tony Award for best musical, fans wrote to members of the cast, expressing gratitude for having their childhood stories of struggle and anxiety and loneliness represented. The show touched a nerve, had dared to reckon with some of the most daunting aspects of young people’s lives. 

And it had done so in a tone that ultimately offers hope.

At least one person wrote to the actor playing the anxious, overwhelmed-by-puberty schoolboy Moritz, that watching the show had stopped him from committing suicide. 

Given the upsurge in radical right-wing politics, the war on wokeness, the surge of attacks on personal freedom and on the rights of young people to live openly according to their felt identity, the show is possibly even more relevant today than when it debuted almost two decades ago.

To reduce the musical to its basic storyline is to hint at its subversive simplicity. A group of teenagers, variously on the cusp of all the thrilling, daunting, exasperating discoveries and questions that come with puberty, seem locked in battle against a world ruled by largely unsympathetic adults: The parents, school teachers and clergy who are also society’s moral watchdogs.

Among these children is the independent thinker, Melchior, played by the floppy-haired, full-lipped, bright-eyed Dylan Janse van Rensburg, who is an astonishing presence on stage, full of fierce enthusiasm and tremendous gusto. You kind of feel his open-heartedness as a performer – the result of this is that he manages to reveal Melchior’s many shades of humanity, so enjoyable to watch, so believable too. 

The characters use song to express some of their darkest secrets in LAMTA’s production of ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Teenagers rocking out, anachronistically, during a scene from ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Some of the schoolboys, at attention in Latin class in a scene from ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

Scarlett Pay as Wendla in ‘Spring Awakening’. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

He is not only intelligent but emotionally wise beyond his years and he also speaks his mind, dares to argue with the grown-ups. He is a philosopher who wants to taste life with the entirety of his being. Like most teenage boys, he has a sexual appetite and a curious body. 

Melchior’s feelings for Wendla are expressed in captivating words as much as in a sudden burst of rage that he has no means of explaining. And then also in pure, flesh-on-flesh, physical desire.

His affection swings in other directions, too. He has a love of ideas and books, and he is devoted to Moritz, his best friend, and does all he can to help him understand the alien weirdness of human sexuality. 

If only that were enough.

Of all the roles, it is perhaps Moritz who is singled out for the most devastating character arc, and who must grapple most rigorously with his own demons. The young actor Johnathan Conrad is gorgeously vulnerable in the role, just breaks your heart with his raw, honest portrayal of a boy who is, tragically, too overwhelmed to survive. 

Director Sylvaine Strike’s method is to work the material to get at its truth and, for the audience, the great reward is that you find yourself so completely immersed in the experience that you’re never simply watching the entertainment unfold, you’re participating in a ritual. It’s impossible to witness the incredible changes these characters go through without being transformed a bit, too.

It’s hard to believe that most of the actors are students, their level of commitment, skill and energy such that you cannot take your eyes off them. They sing their hearts out, dance like their lives depend on it, and you just know this is what they were born to do.

Much of their confidence on stage comes from the tight musical direction, and from the fresh, effervescent choreography developed by Naoline Quinzin and Anna Olivier. Their routines not only make your heart gallop in your chest, but they’ve used movement to convey yet another layer of meaning, to more deeply express the inner lives of the characters. So too the deceptively simple set design, atmospheric lighting and costumes in a unifying palette that help create a visually cohesive world that holds the story beautifully.

This show is a genuine triumph, a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, tenderness and raunchiness, great big laughs and tears rolling down your cheeks. It is naughty, it’s unflinching, and it will shake you to your core. See it. DM

LAMTA’s production of Spring Awakening is playing at the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town until 6 April. It transfers to Joburg from 12 April to 5 May. Tickets from Webtickets. 

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  • Luan Nel says:

    This was the freshest, most delightful, shocking and naughty musical I have ever seen. Talent by the bucket, from the actors, the director, the choreographer and the set designer. It’s rare to see something as polished and powerful as this musical.

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