Samantha Hill as Wendla and Jeremy Walmsley as Melchior in Spring Awakenging (gohabster.com)
Adolescence is tough. Adolescence in Germany in 1891? Really tough. But it's made compelling, if not any easier, in Winnipeg Studio Theatre's solid production of Spring Awakening.
Best known for delivering Fringe hits like Hersteria and Altar Boyz, WST takes on considerably grimmer material with Spring Awakening. This multiple-Tony winning 2006 musical draws its inspiration from Frank Wedekind's 1891 play - so controversial itself that it didn't receive a production until 15 years after it was written. The story is of a group of German teenagers struggling with their budding sexuality in a time of now-unthinkable repression (the opening scene features a teenager asking her mother where babies come from).
There's heat and youthful energy in this - mainly via our central characters, Wendla (Samantha Hill) and Melchior (Jeremy Walmsley). But there's also incredible darkness - over its 130-minute running time, Spring Awakening detours into abuse, incest, masochism, abortion, and suicide. Truly, it's never been easy to be a teenager.
The tautness of this setting is juxtaposed with Duncan Sheikh's moving contemporary score, which is heavily tinged with rock, lushly orchestrated, and superbly performed under Andrew St. Hilaire's musical direction by a live eight-piece band (including a string quartet, who give the music a sweeping richness). The beautifully-written songs, like the story they help tell, can be quite sombre, both musically and in Steven Sater's lyrics. The show's only note of humour is black, in the rocking ode to adolescent strife Totally F--ked. That number in particular delivers an energy and rock n' roll attitude that could stand to be amped up in some other spots in this production, which occasionally feels curiously restrained in the musical performances.
But under Kayla Gordon's direction, the young 18-person cast (the vast majority of whom are certainly under 30) commit themselves to this difficult material admirably. Hill and Walmsley are both outstanding in their lead roles - they generate a genuine sense of passion in their scenes together (including the beautiful duet The Word of Your Body and their unflinching love scene in the Act One closer I Believe), and create sympathetic and believably conflicted characters. The supporting cast is strong - local pros Mariam Bernstein and Arne Macpherson handle the multiple adult roles with aplomb, and Aubree Erickson is a standout as the "liberated" teen Ilse.
None of this makes for easy viewing, and to call it "entertaining" would be to diminish its impact. But it does engage, and ends on a note of cautious hope in the rousing closer The Song of Purple Summer - reminding us that those who survived through adolescence, and are able to embrace the passion of the world around us, are lucky indeed.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer
Pictured above, right, Samanta Hill and Jeremy Walmsley (gohabster.com)