Theatre review: Spring Awakening understands its universal truth despite a few blemishes

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Hormones are in no short supply in the Studio 58 production of Spring Awakening, but much like the effect those hormones can have there are a few blemishes that even a youthful enthusiasm for the material can’t cover up.

A mash-up of centuries, Spring Awakening is the musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play of the same name.  Telling the story of a group of young students rebelling against authority and discovering their sexuality, the play explores themes of sexuality, rape, child abuse, homosexuality, suicide and abortion, all designed to be a deliberate attack on the sexually-oppressive culture of 19th century.  Often banned or censored, Wedekind’s original play wasn’t staged until almost 20 years after it was first written.

Of course, times change and today it all sounds just like another episode of Glee, but I suppose that is largely the point.  Taking the basic story and continuing with its original setting in late 19th century Germany, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have forged it with first-rate folk-rock music and lyrics.  Anachronistic by design, the musical shifts from the action in the provincial German town at the turn of the century to a modern sensibility in the songs.  The transitions from the two time periods help to highlight the timeless nature of the feelings experienced by young people across the decades.

With songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “My Junk” there is no question that once the characters start singing we’ve stepped into the modern world, but even with the help from Alan Brodie’s lighting, many of the musical scenes become blurred.  It isn’t until well into the second act with “Totally Fucked” that there is a solid delineation between the eras and as a result it stands out as one of the show’s highlights.

Members of the cast of the Studio 58 production of Spring Awakening. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Studio 58 production of Spring Awakening. Photo by David Cooper.

It does help to know going in that Studio 58 is not a musical theatre program as some of the singing is rough.  While the cast easily deals with the emotional text and lyrics, only a few are up to the task of Sheik’s music.  Highlights here include William Ford Hopkins and Alex Strong, who are used to great effect in supporting some of the weaker singers, but given little opportunity to show off what they can do individually.  While not the best voice of the night, Dallas Sauer does bring a unique quality to the role of Moritz with a believable “Don’t Do Sadness”.  Among the women, it is Stephanie Izsak as the fallen Ilse that stands out, suitably resigned to her circumstances.  Strength in numbers does help the ensemble shine; the final number, “The Song of Purple Summer”, even with its sometimes odd lyrics, is as emotionally charged as it is beautiful to listen to.

The weakness in some of the singing is in sharp contrast to the superb work of the five-piece band.  Musical director Andy Toth has assembled a quintet (Joshua Stackhouse, Lyndon Surjik, Elisa Money, Kenzie Peters, Colin Parker) that is of such quality that one hoped they would play at intermission.  The strings gave an amazing depth to Sheik’s music and the band is so tight it has become my new benchmark for quality.

Despite its blemishes, there is no question the power Spring Awakening wields, whether it is from the enthusiastic cast and crew or the audience who can both relate to its universal truth of self-discovery.

3 Out of 5 StarsSpring Awakening

Book and lyrics by Steven Sater.  Music by Duncan Sheik.  Based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by David Hudgins. Musical direction by Andy Toth. Choreography by Shelley Stewart Hunt. A Studio 58/Langara College production.  On stage at Studio 58 through February 24, 2013.  Visit for tickets and information.

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