Having had the chance to see the dress rehearsal of Spring Awakening at the Oxford Playhouse ahead of the crowds I’m sure will be descending to see this ambitious, moving, and pitch-perfect production.
I was immediately struck by the set design. Emily Stevenhagen’s garish neon stained-glass window was a constant in the flexible space, immediately and concisely introducing the conflicts between organised religion, civilised society, and rebellious youth about to unfold. The moving staircases and thin metal balcony also worked very well and all the complex set transitions were handled excellently by the ensemble. I only wish that the set’s least creative moments, when two white walls connected to simulate Wendla’s living room, had been given the same thought as their most innovative and affecting, when orderly lines of ensemble in school uniform march across the stage and drop bouquets of flowers to simulate a graveyard.
As the cast entered in boxer shorts and silk slips, they stand in pairs and dress each other, a touching and subtle show of the intimacy that will be denied them throughout the musical. The initial dialogue was a little rushed and garbled, but the cast soon settled into the show and the stage, which made it clear it was likely just dress-rehearsal nerves. From the first song, I was sold. The acting was strong, but the musical talent of this cast is worth attending for on its own.
Hannah Andrusier’s, delicate voice as Wendla was a delight to listen to, perfectly evoking the innocence of her character, though occasionally its subtleties were disappointingly no match for the volume of the orchestra behind her. Melchior, played by Henry Waddon, was full of roguish, rebellious energy and easy charm. The chemistry of these two actors was undeniably one of the most compelling parts of this production, and they slowly unfolded their love affair with all of the tenderness and electricity of repressed teenagers. It was only occasionally that this beautiful give-and-take slipped, with one seemingly forgetting to react to a passionate kiss because of the pressure of remembering a choreographed pull-away, but this was only disappointing because of the earnest tenderness of what had come before. I commend these actors and their director, Issy Paul, for building this genuine, growing intimacy into the centre of the musical. It made all the difference.
Special note must be taken of Gavin Fleming and Ella Tournes who played, with incredible fluidity, every adult figure in the musical. The sheer number of costume changes alone must have been a task, but almost every adult represented on stage was a distinctive presence with a clearly defined voice. I only wish some of their characters, like Wendla’s mother whose disapproval is so key to the plot, had been a little less frantic and more three-dimensional. They were particularly enjoyable as the schoolmaster and mistress, though, and the voices they adopted for these characters were utterly perfect. Joe Winter as Moritz also deserves recognition for capturing the awkward charm of Melchior’s struggling best friend, and Martha’s duet with Ilse, performed by Ruby Nicholson and Maddy Page, was beautifully sung and very moving. Some characters, however, like Ernst (Tom Foster) and Hanschen (Emilio Campa) were well acted but fleeting and limited in depth, leaving the audience with the distinct sense that they had missed something.
The music was frequently the star of the show, occasionally to the detriment of the singers who provided less volume or enunciation, and occasionally highlighting that the musicality was more fully realised than the drama. If I did not know the plot already, I may have struggled to keep up with some of the more exposition-heavy songs and plot beats overwhelmed by music. Having the orchestra constantly visible to the audience and even occasionally brought out onto the stage made the production dynamic and undeniably musical, though. The lively group numbers particularly punctuated the divide between the characters’ orderly public personas and their internal desires and frustrations expressed through song.
This is not a perfect production, but it is a great one. Every aspect is ambitious, from the lighting, to the staging, to the musical arrangements and the emotional performances. The cast and crew have clearly pushed themselves to the creative limit and it has certainly paid off – this production is vibrant, exciting, a bit messy and unfinished (as adolescence tends to be), and very touching. I highly recommend you see it while you have the chance.