Friday, 23 May 2014

Review: MADSoc's Spring Awakening

Being a huge fan of Spring Awakening and knowing a lot of the cast and creatives through MTSoc, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel back to Guildford to see MADSoc’s (Music and Drama Society) production of Spring Awakening last week.

For those who don’t know the show, Spring Awakening is a rock musical based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. Due to its controversy at the time and its dealing with sexuality, child abuse, suicide and abortion, the play was initially banned and many performances were censored even into the 1960s. The musical adaptation was written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Satar and its original Broadway production in 2006 won a total of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The first of many successes of director, Dan Marks, and co-director/choreographer, Freya Poole, was the staging. It was clear that the two had carefully considered the significance of innovative staging for a show of this kind, and the decision to steer away from a conventional set-up was certainly an effective one.

The main performance space was at floor-level, creating an intimate and intense atmosphere throughout. Another advantage of using the floor space was in the audience’s ability to witness every intricacy of the cast’s performance, whether this was Moritz shaking with frustration or the subtle conflictions within Ilse’s sense of identity. The only slight drawback was that it was occasionally difficult to see, particularly when the cast were sitting down (or if you are vertically challenged as I am).

In addition to this central space there was a raised platform, of which the front was a blackboard covered in chalk writing. As well as providing another visual dimension, the platform created a separation between the two spaces, often portraying the isolation of characters. Contrastingly, at other times it seemed to contribute to the underlying sense of the protagonists being watched and highlighted their inability to escape from the pressures and confines enforced by the adult figures. Throughout the performance, the cast entered the space from behind the audience and through the three divides in the seating, which mirrored the claustrophobic sufferings of many of the characters and made empathising with their struggles an effortless and natural process.

The original use of lighting was another impressive element in this student-run production. For the majority of the performance the changes were subtly effective in reflecting the mood of the particular scene; however the real innovation of the design was shown through moments such as light being used to symbolise the graves of Melchior and Wendla. Another outstanding example was during the number ‘Totally Fucked’, where predominantly red shades flashed all across the stage and into the audience, and the discomfort of having lights thrown onto your face really emphasised the pain and angst of the characters.

Spring Awakening is a challenging show for any company to take on, yet the visible dedication of this cast to their roles, particularly in the difficult scenes, went above and beyond any expectations of an amateur production. Not one member of the cast seemed phased by any of the difficult scenes and it was evident that each individual truly cared about their character and the messages of the show itself.

From the moment that Wendla (Eve Dillon) began the show with ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ it was clear that this was going to be a strong performance. Dillon’s portrayal of Wendla had just the right balance of naivety and curiosity needed to pull at the audience’s emotions throughout, and her passionate vocals and rich tone really accentuated Wendla’s underlying sensuality. In fact, Dillon’s heart-breaking rendition of ‘Whispering’ was the stand-out number of the show and her ability to deliver so much fresh meaning through each and every verse was particularly impressive.

Melchior’s (Aaron Douglas) more authoritative presence on stage was the perfect counterpart to Wendla’s innocence and his stillness as a character in comparison to the rest of the cast effectively conveyed his ‘knowing’. Melchior is arguably the audience’s way into the show - the most relatable character - due having an awareness that none of the others do, and Douglas certainly established this connection with the audience. In comparison to the more passive roles the character takes during the majority of scenes, his breakdown in the graveyard at the end reveals another side to his mentality, of which Douglas conveyed equally well.

Moritz Stiefel (Matthew Westrope) is potentially the most complex and challenging character in the show, but his internal struggle was excellently depicted through Westrope’s intense movements and the depth of emotion he delivered through his expression, both facial and vocal. Both Westrope’s and Emma Barry’s (Isle) faultless vocals and their talent for revealing the complexity of their characters led to a truly touching and believable relationship and interaction during ‘Don’t Do Sadness’ and ‘Blue Wind’.

The remainder of the cast portrayed their roles with such conviction that they are each worthy of individual credit. Furthermore, the stunningly melancholic music of the show was done justice by all of their performances and the tricky harmonies were upheld throughout. The band, led by musical director, Leah Franks, was to an equally remarkable standard, and the balance between vocals and backing was spot-on. The only criticism that could be made is that there were a few instances when microphone levels weren’t altered quickly enough and lines (both spoken and sung) were lost, particularly by the supporting characters. However this seems to be inevitable for student-run productions, especially on opening night.

The only factor that remains to be mentioned is the choreography. Freya Poole’s movement perfectly complimented the moods and tensions of the musical numbers and offered moments of pure, sensual fluidity (for example in ‘Mama Who Bore Me’) followed by the sharp, violent gestures of angst (‘The Bitch of Living’). The repetition of robotic-like movements during songs such as ‘Totally Fucked’ conveyed the repressive nature of their society and the barriers the young are trying to break through. It was obvious that Poole had put a lot of hard work into her choreography and it had a substantial impact on the show’s success.

Massive congratulations to all involved in MADSoc’s production of Spring Awakening – you should all be really proud of accomplishing such a high standard of performance.


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