The Hills Musical Company. The Stirling Theatre. 10 Nov 2017
A bleak setting awaits those taking their seats at the Stirling Theatre for the Hills Musical Company’s production of Spring Awakening. Designer/Director Hayley Horton has wrapped the stage in black - a blank white projection screen, centre, the only relief. It is the foundation for this tale of a group of oppressed adolescents clawing, nay fighting, their way into adulthood with both hands figuratively tied behind their back. The set and lighting (Tim Bates) drives this message home.
Wendla Bergmann (Millicent Sarre) enters, dressed sweetly in virgin white, she is a picture of naivety and innocence. Sarre plays her coyly but with a strong desire for learning. Her Mumma Who Bore Me aches for wisdom and understanding. Sarre sings beautifully. In the immediate reprise the girls’ assault the stage, venting their frustration at their parent’s conventionalism. It is a powerful performance and has us upright in our seats. This production presents the innermost thoughts and desires of these otherwise outwardly compliant adolescents through the expressive musical medium of rock.
Sitting in their Latin class, the boys recite verse from memory when young Moritz Stiefel (Connor Olsson-Jones) has a mental blank. He has been kept awake at night by ‘wet dreams’ he cannot comprehend. When his close friend Melchior Gabor (Mitchell Smith) jumps to his defence, arguing with the boys’ teacher, Herr Sonnenstich (Josh Barkley) that Stiefel’s interpretation may still have validity it provides the perfect segue into All That’s Known. Smith gives us a first insight into the mind of a character that rejects both religion and institution. Smith’s Gabor is complex, inquisitive, relentlessly demanding, yet vulnerable; Smith’s performance is second to none.
The boys’ sexual frustrations are released in a powerful rendering of The Bitch of Living before the whole cast confess their crushes, unrealised sexual desires, and distant admiration, in My Junk; the number wonderfully juxtaposing the difference in the experience for girls and boys.
The Word of Your Body finds Sarre and Smith exploring their burgeoning sexuality in what is certainly a show highlight. We are trapped by the tension the two young performers exude as their hands explore their own body, and each other’s.
It is a troubling transition into The Dark I Know Well, but it is undoubtedly a defining performance for young actress, Sahra Cresshull who plays Martha Bessell. Cresshull tugs at our heart strings with her distressing, unnerving, and facially expressive performance, which is enhanced when her sister, Ilse (Jemma Allen), joins her for a stunning duet.
Olsson-Jones is dangerously good in And Then There Were None, with Fanny Gabor (Kate Anolak). It should be said that everything Anolak does, in her many roles as The Adult Woman, is delivered with panache and elegance. Thomas Phillips’ interpretive choreography – which enhances the entire performance – shines brightly, both in structure and cast execution, in The Mirror-Blue Night; another solidly executed sing by Smith. I Believe rounds out the first act with a passionate, believably staged love scene.
Horton’s set undergoes a constant transformation which mirrors that of her blossoming cast, as it is constantly ‘wounded’ by the players stripping it bare of the bleak wrapping which conceals its inner beauty, colour, angst, and impending destruction. The white screen, electronically decorated by hand drawings of innocence, is an evolving – occasionally distracting – canvas.
Olsson-Jones and Allen share a moment in Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind with another show highlight before Smith delivers an object lesson in performance with his rendition of Left Behind opposite Josh Barkley as Herr Stiefel. Both performers are outstanding in this number and, like Anolak, Barkley deserves recognition for his work throughout in his many roles as The Adult Man.
Totally Fucked is the showstopper number, which does nothing short of shake the house down under the skill of this ensemble. Never does this cast sound better than when singing together in harmony. The Song of Purple Summer a standout example of the sensitivity and power this group harness on stage. The talented ensemble is completed with the contributions of Emily Downing as Thea, Chelsea McGuiness as Anna, Emma Wilczek as Melitta, Kieren Gulpers as Greta, Zachary Moore as Hanschen, Harry Nguyen as Ernst, Robbie Mitchell as Georg and Dylan Rufus as Otto.
Tim Feedman’s sound design and operation manages the complex changing levels of dialogue and song with skill whilst musical director, Mark DeLaine’s band drives the rock genre without overpowering the show. What DeLaine has accomplished with the singers is the icing to Horton’s cake. There are a few creeping Australian-isms in both song and dialogue amongst the cast that frustrate, and a few nerves shake otherwise steady performers’ confidence on opening night; an issue likely to pass.
Horton’s vision for an updated Spring Awakening rings true, except for the costumes which seem oddly stuck in the past - perhaps one update too far from the original, or maybe an unnecessary alteration in the greater vision of this production? Either way it hardly matters, there is no doubt this is a show not to be missed.
When: 10 to 25 November
Where: Stirling Community Theatre