Spring Awakening at ANU Arts Centre is a rock musical about teen angst

The youth cast in Spring Awakening: (from left) Pip Carroll as Moritz, Liam Downing as Otto, Breanna Macey as Thea Jake Willis as Ernst, Kaitlin Nihill as Wendla, Tegan Braithwaite as Martha, Callum Bodman as Melchior, Kashmira Mohamed Zagor as Ilse, Daniel Steer as Georg, Lachlan Agett as Hanschen and Nina Wood as Anna. Photo: Michael Moore
The youth cast in Spring Awakening: (from left) Pip Carroll as Moritz, Liam Downing as Otto, Breanna Macey as Thea Jake Willis as Ernst, Kaitlin Nihill as Wendla, Tegan Braithwaite as Martha, Callum Bodman as Melchior, Kashmira Mohamed Zagor as Ilse, Daniel Steer as Georg, Lachlan Agett as Hanschen and Nina Wood as Anna. Photo: Michael Moore

Spring Awakening. Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, based on the play by Frank Wedekind. Music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts. Musical director Matt Webster. Phoenix Players. ANU Arts Centre. November 11-12, 16-19, 23-26. $25-$35. 6253 1454 or stagecenta.com. Dinner and show packages available from Teatro Vivaldi on 6257 2718.

The 2006 musical, Spring Awakening, is set in late 19th-century Germany, but its themes are close to being timeless and universal. Co-director Grant Pegg says, "It's a show about teenage issues in general. It traverses every teenage issue you could imagine – sexuality, suicide, relationships, rebellion, authority, school, sex, friendship."

These teenagers are growing up in a deeply religious community in 1891. Melchior (played by Callum Bodman) and Wendla (Kaitlin Nihill) have known each other since childhood but are developing strange new feelings for each other that they don't know how to explain or handle. Melchior's anxious friend Moritz (Pip Carroll) is particularly disturbed by the dreams he has been having. And Ernst (Jake Willis) and Hanschen (Lachlan Agett) are developing a relationship that goes beyond friendship.

Earlier this year Phoenix Players won acclaim for its Canberra premiere production of the award-winning rock musical Next to Normal. Now the company is premiering another rock musical in Canberra that won eight Tony Awards, including best musical.

Pegg and Kelly Roberts are co-directing Spring Awakening, which is adapted from an 1891 play by German writer Frank Wedekind. They got talking about the musical while appearing in Evita and found their approaches were so similar it made sense to tackle it together.

Roberts says, "Both of us feel that often in theatre, less is more."

She says the focus in Spring Awakening is firmly on the characters and their stories – "it's realistic, with abstract and expressionistic elements". "It's nice to go and see a show not relying on lots of grandiose sets and props."

All the teenagers are played by actors in or only recently out of their adolescence, while all the adult characters – parents, teachers and others – are played by two older actors, David Cannell and Kelda McManus. Insisting on age-appropriate casting was a deliberate choice by Pegg and Roberts: what little might have been sacrificed in experience and vocal polish was gained in poignancy and believability as the actors did not have to pretend to be young.

Pegg says, "We made the choice to have proper young people tell the story. We felt we needed authenticity. I've seen it done with older people in their 20s and it didn't work.

"We want it to be real."

The way Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's music is used in the show is unusual for a musical, Pegg says.

"The songs don't necessarily tell the story ... while the show is set in the 19th century, the songs are modern rock songs. The writers make a clear juxtaposition that when the songs happen the characters go into a 'song world' – the songs are sung in an abstract fashion that describes a scene or mood rather than being part of the story."

For example, one number, The Bitch of Living, releases the pent-up sexual frustrations and desires of the boys through an upbeat rock number.

Roberts says for her, Spring Awakening is about "the highs and lows of being a young person in a community dominated by authority figures". She is a high school drama, dance and psychology teacher and has taken the lead on the movement side of the show. Pegg is a doctor and both of them have found their non-theatrical professional training and experience have come in handy in dealing with some of the show's weightier aspects, especially given so many of the actors are aged between 16 and 21.

At 20, Callum Bodman is only a few years older than his character, Melchior, who wants to bring down the establishment.

"He's a bit of a rebel; he doesn't agree with how things are being run."

Melchior, he says, doesn't like the repressive school regimen and believes there should be no shame in society – which is heavily influenced by the church.

Melchior's parents are progressive for the time – "his mother remarks that her children should be able to read whatever they want" – and Melchior takes advantage of this but his autodidacticism and questioning of the way things are, as well as his relationship with Wendla, eventually land him in serious trouble.

Aspects of the show resonated strongly with Bodman. When he was at school, he knew someone who committed suicide.

"That made it close to home," he says, but it also highlighted that the show was dealing with something important and he feels it does so in a sensitive and relevant way. And having Pegg and Roberts as directors helped because when things got a bit much for the actors, they could have debriefings.

"There was heavy stuff emotionally, I hadn't expected, coming from all the things in it."

Pegg says while Spring Awakening has serious issues, it also has a lighter side, with moments of romance and humour. And it's a showcase for many fine, young Canberra actors.

"The amount of talent is absolutely remarkable."

To increase the intimacy, some audience members will be able to sit on stage on three sides, "up close and personal with the performers", drawing them even further into the teenagers' world.

This story Spring Awakening at ANU Arts Centre is a rock musical about teen angst first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.