Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

Spring Awakening: The Musical, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play, is about many things: coming of age amid sexual and other late 19th century bourgeois repressions; the chasm between generations; the sometimes dire consequences of challenging the prevailing social ethos.

As well – and this seems especially important in light of our own era’s cynicism and our confused sense of what’s real and what’s merely artifice (our digital lives, for example) – the show is about trust and authenticity. It’s about discovering and trusting who one really is, finding the determination to live authentically in the face of a social order deeply opposed to the individual’s need for self-expression, love, sexual connection.

You may know the storyline already. In a nutshell, a group of young people find themselves severely constrained by their society, their church, their families. Hypocrisy, cruelty and power call the shots, causing some of the young people to crumble but others to assert their individuality and pursue what they perceive as right. The narrative, with its rock/pop score, is fundamentally dark despite the unfortunate Hollywood ending tacked on in keeping with the tradition of musicals.

Orpheus’ rendering of this story is rewarding on many levels, but it is the sense of trust and authenticity permeating the show that shines most brightly. For that, choreographer Lola Ryan deserves special applause.

Ryan’s approach was to map out the basics of what she wanted and then to encourage the performers to improvise. The performers, unaccustomed to such latitude, were initially uneasy with this approach according to Ryan. However, it’s obvious that their uneasiness long ago evaporated. The resulting choreography is wonderfully fresh, energetic and distinguished by a deep emotional commitment – qualities that arise only when performers trust themselves and each other enough to be authentic. What Ryan has instilled in the performers informs not just the dance sequences but helps drive the entire, spirited production.

Ryan, of course, is not the sole reason for this splendidly successful production. Artistic director Chantale Plante and musical director Paul Legault bring concision, passion and intelligent interpretation to the story (of the three directors, Legault is the only one who’s worked with Orpheus before). The cast is also strong, with Phillip Merriman (Melchior), Justice Tremblay (Wendla) and Cameron Jones (Moritz) carrying the main roles with aplomb. John Collins also deserves kudos for his multiple, exceedingly unpleasant roles including an odious priest and a tyrannical father.

We’ve seen Spring Awakening: The Musical on larger stages, but Orpheus is, unexpectedly, mounting it in the Studio, an intimate space especially suited to the relatively small cast and closely observed nature of this musical.

The show with its strongly sexual content is also unusual for Orpheus but a risk that pays off in the way it challenges both performers and audiences.

Finally, the show is also an experimental add-on to Orpheus’ traditional three-show season.

Venue, content, season expansion: three smart moves that, coupled with the triple threat of the directorial team, we hope Orpheus repeats.

 

Spring Awakening: The Musical, an Orpheus production, ended Sept. 25.

 

Production team

Artistic Director Chantale Plante
Musical Director Paul Legault
Choreographer Lola Ryan
Set Designer/Scenic Artist Graham Price
Costume Designer/Costume Production Manager Guylaine Roy
Lighting Designer Seth Gerry
Sound Designer Mark Tye

 

Cast

Wendla Bergmann – Justice Tremblay

Martha Bessell – Jesse Levy

Anna – Michelle Gendron

Thea – Alexandra Uhlenberg

Ilse Neumann – Rachael McAuley

Melchior Gabor – Phillip Merriman

Moritz Stiefel – Cameron Jones

Ernst Robel – Brandon Nguyen

Hänschen Rilow – Cullen McGrail

Georg Zirschnitz – Patrick Teed

Otto Lammermeier – Bryn Orth-Lashley

The adults: Alison Enid Foley and John Collins

Ensemble: Katrina Belohoubek, Bebe Brunjes, Jamie Rice, Stéphanie Stroud