The Just So Society’s Freshers’ musical production of Spring Awakening, marvellously directed by Isabelle Molinari and Nokutenda Zhou, opened at the StAge on March 9th, and I was incredibly excited to be in the audience, as was everyone around me, the fully-packed audience positively buzzing before the show started. The production was innovative and electric, and if there’s one thing you should do in St Andrews over the next two days, it is go see this show.
Spring Awakening is a powerful musical about 19th century German school children exploding with anger and passion over their lack of sexual knowledge and the angst that comes with growing up. Despite a far removed setting, the musical has stayed a cultural centrepiece because of its head-banging soundtrack and the strong emotions and questions about the world and one’s place in it that nag at every teenager.
Ella Wong’s set was sparse, with a stage extension that took up the gulf of space between the end of the seating and the stage, two two-dimensional trees covered in lyrics from the show and a couple blocks covered in blankets to look like a bed, which were used for different elements throughout the show. These touches, though nice, were not really enough to fill the stage. This was one of only a few sore spots in the production, as the lack of set-pieces made the stage feel empty at times, but many of the numbers had a large portion of the cast onstage, as well as some other pieces brought onstage, which helped to fill the space.
The show started with Wendla, played by Emily Goggin, standing on top of her bed, singing a stunning rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me.” This role was originated on Broadway by Lea Michele, which could’ve been daunting shoes to fill, but Goggin stepped up to the challenge, bringing incredible vocals and acting to the role, playing Wendla’s naïveté, yearning and unfaltering determination so perfectly that you cannot help but root for her from the first note. Goggin created a distinct character that had all thoughts of Michele’s original fleeing from my thoughts.
The next song, the group reprise of “Mama Who Bore Me” was one of the best moments of the show. The entire female ensemble came onstage, bringing the raging energy that the show is known for to the stage, as well as pitch-perfect harmonies, which immediately gave me chills and had the audience ready for more foot-stomping rock.
The next scene, however, lost this energy. The boys’ introductory song, “The Bitch of Living,” lacked the degree of energy needed. The musical, and this song in particular, is a sucker punch of tumultuous anger and tension, and the cast just didn’t quite make it there. This slight lack of energy carried through for the rest of the act, making some moments which were supposed to spark with anger and frustration that make the audience care for the characters seem funny instead of serious. Perhaps it was just first night jitters, but some members of the cast just didn’t have the electricity needed to reach the rage and passion on which the show thrives.
The second act was a completely different story. I don’t know if the cast did some jumping jacks backstage in the interval, but from the first moment the cast crackled with energy, even in the somber, soft scene that opened the act. This energy really hit, however, in “Totally F****d,” a number that shares musical themes with “The Bitch of Living.” It sees the whole cast jumping onstage with a desperate attempt to express their pent up resentment and longing. This scene was glorious, and the energy was above and beyond what was missing from the first act. At the end of it, amid the loudest applause of the show, I even turned to my friend and said, “there it is.” This energy carried through for the rest of the act, ending the show on the highest of notes.
Not all the cast lacked energy in the first act, however, with a couple cast members standing out amongst a team of truly exceptional singers. In particular, Charmaine Au-Yeung, who played Ilse, and Cam Kloeppel who played Moritz, were a joy to watch. Au-Yeung was the best performer onstage. Whenever she came on, her passion and sheer love of being up there was palpable, not to mention her powerhouse of a voice. Kloeppel played Moritz perfectly, his acting making the character’s already emotional plight even more impactful. Au-Yeung and Kloeppel’s brief duet was one of the best moments of the show. Also of note was Au-Yeung’s duet with Judith Somerville, who played Martha, which had me in awe of their talent and dynamism.
The last scene of the show was one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on any stage – in St Andrews or in a professional show – in a long time. The cast came out in t-shirts with the logos of mental health organisations, such as Nightline and CALM, singing a chilling final song for which I only have one word: wow. “I will sing the song of purple summer,” they sang, proclaiming that they will bring in a new season where children can be understood by adults and helped by them to understand themselves. There is hope, and no one has to be alone.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the band and the technicians. The band, conducted by Elle Hale, did not have one weak moment. During the intermission I even heard someone behind me ask their friend if they were using a backing track, the band was so perfect. The tech, headed by William Jamieson, was also almost flawless. The lighting was beautiful and really added to the production instead of just making it visible. The only critique I would have is the blackouts in transitions. Every transition had a blackout and no transition music which did pull the audience out of the scene, contributing to the feeling of a lack of energy. It would have been nice to have some transition music, as well as more interesting uses of the transition time in light.
Overall, Spring Awakening was a wonderful show with intoxicating music sung by an astonishingly talented cast, and beautiful staging by Molinari and Zhou. Despite some rough spots, this was still a fantastic theatrical experience. During the bows, I could hear the production team clapping and cheering at the back of the theatre, and singing along to the final encore, overflowing with joy. They should be very proud of what they’ve created, and deserve endless praise. For a first musical, this was phenomenal, and I cannot wait to see what they will do next.
Spring Awakening is on tonight, March 10th and tomorrow, March 11th, at 7:30pm in the StAge. Please note that the show contains swearing, scenes of a sexual nature, and pregnancy, as well as themes of sexual violence, death, abuse, suicide and mental health.